Presidential inaugurations I’ll always remember

Protestors along the parade route

The first presidential inauguration I attended was Richard Nixon’s in 1969. Well, I guess I should say that I was actually there for the counter-inauguration, a protest organized by MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam). The Vietnam War was raging, and both major presidential candidates—Democratic candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Republican candidate Richard Nixon—had run campaigns in 1968 indicating they would continue the war in Southeast Asia. So, to give Tricky Dick a not-so-warm welcome, my brother Art, his wife Claudia (who was pregnant with their first child Dylan, Bob Brinkley, and I hopped in my well-used Saab and drove from Murfreesboro, Tennessee to our nation’s capitol. We crashed at my wife Shannon’s brother Harry Nelson’s pad. Shannon stayed behind to help with the local protest and to care for our eight-month-old daughter Lilla.

About the protest, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, both MOBE leaders, co-wrote “. . . we believe the movement must organize an election offensive which demonstrates our refusal to accept the election choices offered and repudiates and discredits the system which imposes such choices on us.” Sound familiar?

Peaceful strategies and more confrontational tactics were both employed by the thousands of mostly-young protestors. On the evening before the inauguration, we were part of a solemn procession in which we carried a candle and the name of an American killed in Vietnam. The next day, as President Nixon’s limousine as proceeded down the inaugural parade route, some made the universal peace sign (though a sizable number just held up their middle finger) and chanted “Hell, no, we won’t go!” while a few others pelted the limousine with rocks and bottles. That evening, protestors flung horse manure (from the horseback police) at the attendees entering Vice President Spiro Agnew’s celebratory gathering. Later that night The Fugs performed “Kill for Peace” at MOBE headquarters, a large tent set up at the National Mall, and Phil Ochs sang “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”

Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British war
The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

Nixon’s limousine in inaugural parade

For I’ve killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying I saw many more dying
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brothers
And so many others But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky
Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning
That I ain’t marchin’ anymore

Now the labor leader’s screamin’
when they close the missile plants,
United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore,
Call it “Peace” or call it “Treason,”
Call it “Love” or call it “Reason,”
But I ain’t marchin’ any more,
No I ain’t marchin’ any more

Though public sentiment eventually turned against the Vietnam War, it continued until the fall of Saigon in 1975. By that time, more than 58,000 Americans had been killed and hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians—North and South Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and others—were among the dead.

Of course, we all know Nixon’s fate—resignation to avoid the humiliation of impeachment for the high crimes and misdemeanors that occurred during the Watergate cover-up. History does repeat itself, right?

40 Years later—Barack Obama’s inauguration

Our time in D.C. for Barack’s inauguration on January 20, 2009 started marvelously. On Sunday night, Shonnie and I settled into our friend Greg Barton’s basement apartment in the Capitol Hill district, located within walking distance of many of our planned destinations.

On Monday, our first day in the District, we joined thousands of enthusiastic volunteers at the King Day of Service at RFK Stadium assembling care packages for troops overseas. There was electricity in the air as we all joyfully went about our duties, winding up with writing notes to soldiers to accompany their packages.

The elation and excitement were palpable as we walked down the streets of our nation’s capitol. Signs in support of our new president festooned the city. Automobiles were plastered with bumper stickers, signs and flags. People everywhere sported Obama hats, jackets, shirts and buttons. Knowing smiles were exchanged, intimate thoughts were shared with strangers and assistance was offered to others spontaneously and without a second thought.

Monday night we went to my campaign co-worker Emma Levine’s home in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland for a delicious dinner with the rest of the Ohio Region 3 campaign team–Meagan Gardner, Brady Quirk-Garvan, Seth Bannon, Richard Becker, Courtney Frogge, and Graham Vesey. It was a fun and informal affair peppered with the retelling of stories from the front lines, discussion of what we’d been doing since the election, and some talk of what’s next.

On Inauguration Day, Tuesday, January 20, the overwhelming numbers of folks who wanted to be a part of the historic affair as well as what must have been piss poor planning by the Inaugural Committee, created snafus that totally altered our plans. Though we had tickets to get us into a reserved area on the Capitol grounds to view the inauguration, after waiting in freezing temperatures for three hours, the gate we were supposed to go through was closed before we could gain entry. And there were thousands more like us. Nonetheless, jubilation and excitement ruled the day. A post by Hahna Kane on the Swarthmore College website describes what we missed:

Strangers, families, and friends were resting upon each other, huddling to stay warm as they awaited the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama. Everyone was from everywhere and people were of all ages, from infants to the elderly. It was amazing to see how this one event was uniting the world.

Upon sunrise, the audience went from hundreds of participants to millions. The event hadn’t even started when the chanting and cheering began. What I’ll remember most is the crowd’s euphoria once Obama was seen heading down the halls of the Capitol. Once Biden completed his oath, the crowd knew Obama was next. In that moment, I felt like I was in an ocean of ecstasy. It was contagious. We couldn’t help but celebrate, whether it was by cheering at the top of our lungs, jumping up and down with joy, or crying. Our emotions took us over. We knew that this was actually happening. We knew that we were regaining our American dream and the dreams of our ancestors. We felt a sense of justice. As Obama recited the oath, there was this beautiful silence. Can you imagine the silence of 2 million people? The tranquility was amazing.

Disappointed, but not discouraged, we went back to our borrowed apartment, and watched the replay of the swearing in ceremony and President Obama’s inaugural address on CNN.

Inaugural ball bound!

That night we had tickets to attend the Youth Ball, and Shonnie looked marvelous in her fitted black gown. And I looked pretty damned snappy in my tux, as well. We stood in line outside the Washington Hilton, the venue for the ball, in bone-chilling cold for about an hour before entering the hotel and going through security. I was glad to have the opportunity to exchange greetings with Jeremy Bird and Chris Wyant, two of the Ohio campaign leaders, and we were all in a festive mood hoping to get to the ballroom before the President and the First Lady arrived for their brief appearance and dance. Once again, however, it was not to be. Just as we cleared security and headed to the entrance of the event, a law enforcement official informed us that the Obamas had arrived and the ballroom was full to capacity; no one else could enter at this time. If we’d chosen to stick around, we likely could have gotten in eventually. But it was getting late, so we opted for an excellent meal at a tiny Italian restaurant near DuPont Circle, somewhat satisfied that at least we’d been present in D.C. as Barack Obama entered office. I fell into bed exhausted around 2:00 A.M. wondering what our Founding Fathers, a number of whom were slave owners, would have thought about a black man becoming President of the United States. I imagined them thinking, as they rolled in their graves, “What’s next, a woman?”

The Staff Ball at the D.C. Armory on Wednesday night almost made up for the previous day’s disappointments. Shonnie and I had a superb time celebrating with my campaign co-workers; liquid refreshment flowed, and the food was plentiful. From “The End of the Beginning” by Sean Quinn of the blog FiveThirtyEightPolitics:

Both Obamas, both Bidens, David Plouffe, Kal Penn, Arcade Fire and Jay-Z headlined the event, meant as a reward for the men and women, mostly in their twenties, who dedicated their lives toward the common purpose of electing Barack Obama President of the United States. . . .

No part of the evening was as special to this group as the heartfelt expression of appreciation from the President himself, who spoke for longer and more personally than he had at the Youth Ball the previous evening. The President, who is a community organizer at heart, knows personally and precisely what this group did to reach this moment. . . .

The Ohio Region 3 Team

Already, the new administration has set its jaw soberly into the wind. The country voted for significant changes in public policy both foreign and domestic, and the urgency to get moving is palpable.

I had a deep and abiding passion to be of service to my nation and the Obama Administration, and I toyed with the idea of seeking a job in D.C. What I really wanted, however, was to be a leader in the powerful grassroots movement that had come together around the Obama campaign. I was sure that our new President would propose FDR-like ideas to get the country moving again—agencies akin to the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Writers Project, etcetera—and that the thirteen million email supporters, four million donors, and two-and-a-half million activists connected through the My.BarackObama social network would be called into action again. Based on what Obama had told us in his conference calls with field staff, I was sure that I would be summoned to lead once more, and I was giddy at the prospect.

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