But sitting in the sixth row of Section 1 at the inauguration of Barack Obama, with the Marine Corps band 25 feet away and the podium looming above, was as close to history as a political reporter can hope to get, even if history must be watched through enormous bullet-proofed “curtains.”
Getting to Section 1, Seat 138 was a history lesson in itself. With the first African-American taking the oath of office, and post-9/11 security more stringent than ever, even a spectator in a “nonpublic” section had to circumnavigate a large area cordoned off to automobile traffic, walk a dozen blocks, and then pass through two checkpoints in the Rayburn House Office Building on Independence Avenue.
By contrast, the first inauguration of George W. Bush recalled a more innocent era. Reaching the Capitol was an easy taxi ride, and the security check was almost perfunctory. The only concern was the weather, with shoes sinking deeply into sodden ground and making giant suction sounds with every step.
Today the ground was hard, as hard as the problems the new president faces.
At noon, after the invocation by the Rev. Rick Warren and antipodean musical offerings (Aretha Franklin, then Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma), the onlookers in Section 1 craned their necks to watch Barack Obama put his hand on the Lincoln Bible to be sworn in as president. Along the aisle were many longtime observers of the Washington scene, but even the most jaded among them felt moved by the singularity of the occasion, an event they didn’t expect to see in their working lives.
History, of course, is not without its ironies, and the swearing in provided one of them. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administered the oath to the president-elect, one of 22 Democratic senators who voted against his confirmation, because Obama believed that the jurist “far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.”
But when Obama concluded by saying “so help me God,” this old clash seemed far from the minds of these men, and not even a footnote to the millions watching the ceremony.
In his memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Obama said his aim was to extract “some granite slab of truth upon which my unborn children can firmly stand.” In his inauguration address, he attempted to do something similar for 300 million Americans, many of them anxious about the economic crisis and wars abroad.
If he stirred hearts, it was probably when he praised “those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains.”
“They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service.”
At this crucial moment, Obama said, “It is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.”
When the speech was done, the cheers rolled down the Mall as the dignitaries walked back into the Capitol. Before the traditional luncheon in Statuary Hall, the 44th president escorted the 43rd president to a brief departure ceremony. Whatever their political differences, they now shared a solemn bond.
On this chilly day, hundreds of thousands of spectators rubbed feeling into their hands and began to trudge on numb feet from the Mall to the streets of the city, streets that were strangely silent save for vendors hawking Obama souvenirs.
The spectacle they had seen, sparkling with good will and reaffirming the miracle of American democracy, had given them a sense of possibility, and now they seemed to be working it over in their minds. Watching history, after all, is an act of reflection.
A journalist in Section 1 understood, now more than ever before, that a ringside seat is no mere metaphor, but rather a great privilege.