From hope to apprehension, a tale of two inaugurations

With his family by his side, Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.
With his family by his side, Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. Armed Forces Inaugural Committee

Eight years ago, I did something out of character for me. Totally on impulse—using frequent flier miles and a friend’s offer of his guest room—I went to Barack Obama’s first inauguration. So there I was on Jan. 20, 2009, standing on the National Mall a long way from the Capitol but close in emotion to the historic ceremony that took place.

I arrived the day before and hustled to the office of new Sen. Kay Hagan to see if a ticket might miraculously be available. I had no luck with that, but the electric atmosphere in Washington made cares vanish; I was there to witness history, and that was all that mattered.

Early on Inauguration Day my friend and I descended into the metro in Arlington and waded into the thickest crowd of riders I ever had seen. The cars were so packed that once I had my hand on an overhead bar, I did not have room to lower it and switch hands. I have ridden on crowded subways in places like Cairo and Hong Kong, but nowhere else have I seen the crowding and cheerful mood of that amazing day.

The temperature at noon was 28 degrees, nine below average, and the wind gusted up to 23 mph, so the cold was piercing when we got out at Foggy Bottom. Like everyone else we headed toward the Lincoln Memorial, a fitting place to overlook the scene.

We climbed the steps to where U2, among other groups, had performed the day before. The view down the mall was striking, with jumbotrons, loudspeakers, portable toilets and a bundled-up crowd later estimated at a staggering 1.8 million people.

My friend had enough of the tumult and went home, but I worked my way toward the Capitol. On the way I passed two memorials with special meaning that day, as the principal job of the president is to keep the country safe. I walked through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where I found the names of two friends from my hometown of Sinclairville, N.Y., who died in Vietnam. I halted at the National World War II Memorial. My father, a member of of the “greatest generation,” was stationed in Europe during WWII.

I was still quite a distance from the Capitol steps but in sight and hearing of the inauguration, thanks to the video screens and speakers. The very diverse crowd reflected a lot of Washington, D.C. and the country. I saw African American families with Obama signs and buttons on their winter parkas. Some military folks in uniform stood to my right, near men in nice suits and heavy overcoats. We claimed that patch of the mall as our temporary little neighborhood, greeted one another and shook hands.

The ceremony was something I’ll never forget, and I think that for most people in the audience Barack Obama’s swearing-in offered the promise of a new America, with hope as the theme and the future looking a bit less contentious.

People quietly filed away afterward, thinking, surely, about what this all meant. Few of them could have foreseen or even believed possible the partisan fury that was to grow, culminating in the nomination and victory of a man singularly unprepared—by experience, education, temperament, whatever— to be the American president.

For Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, I’ve decided to stay in Raleigh. I thought for a moment about going, as this was also going to be a historic inauguration, but I realized I just did not have the courage or stomach to witness Trump become president.

I don’t think I would have found my friendly little neighborhood in Friday’s crowd, either. I’m sure the atmosphere will be electric, but only because of the utility lobbyists and coal and gas magnates, who hope these resources—and not solar or wind—will supply the nation’s power grid.

The inauguration happens every four years, no matter whose hand is on the Bible, and in some ways it represents a journey. Like it or not, we’re all along for the ride, and despite those t-shirts that proclaim “Not my president,” he is.

For a while after the election I thought that Trump would moderate his views, grow up and rein in his impulsive and irresponsible Twitter outbursts. I hoped he would understand that the Oval Office is not a reality TV set. But when he unleashed his utterly wrongheaded abuse on Rep. John Lewis, an honorable icon of the civil rights movement, I knew my hopes were futile.

Coming just four days after the country honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the man assassinated for supporting human rights, the country inaugurates a man who is singularly indifferent about human rights. It is hard to ignore the irony. This presidency will be a journey all right, a sad four years that cannot pass quickly enough.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism at N.C. State University.