03 February 2009

Augury and Inauguration

Photograph by Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

The new presidential administration has been welcomed by the nation with open arms — prompting Groucho’s reply, “Is that so? How late do you stay open?” Suddenly, we are something more than American citizens, more than the people and the governed: we are Obama Fanatics. Even Pepsi has launched an advertising campaign blatantly ripping off Barack Obama’s graphics and spirit, almost as if the gentleman had been elected by 100 percent of the American people, and as if there were no Republicans at all.

A great deal of trust has been placed on the forthright, handsome, honest shoulders of our wise, capable, youthful, and superhuman new President. We are relieved of Bush, and certain of Obama’s ability to clean up the mess in which Bush placed us. Our hopes are high, and we tell pollsters that we intend to be patient with President Obama. We will allow him to dip a toe in the water before he walks on it, we say. Why, we’re willing to wait as long as two years for him to perform his miracles! We are models of patience!

My hope is that we’re telling the truth. We’re setting ourselves up for a mean disappointment, when it emerges that not even a demigod can rescue us overnight. And a backlash, if it arrives, could make Barack’s job even more difficult.

That’s why it will be important, in years to come, to look back on the Inauguration, and the way so many of us felt. We’ll find strength in those memories, I believe. Two friends of mine have gone on the record — sharing their observations of Inauguration Day with me — and with you.

Two Americans: A new friend greets Catherine Karnow
Photograph courtesy of Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

My goddaughter played hooky from school* in order to ride, with a few friends and one parent, to Washington. “You won’t be able to see anything,” I warned her.

“I don’t care,” she said simply. “I just want to be a part of it.” She’d been inspired by Barack Obama pretty much on first sight; she’d invested a great deal of spiritual capital in his long campaign and in his victory. She wanted to see this thing through. If that meant missing a day of school — if that meant catching influenza on the Mall and missing several more days of school — if that meant flunking her History paper — so be it.

“Would you rather have me witness history or just write about it?” she asked of her teacher.

“Nice try,” he said. But she was undaunted.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

She drove into the snowy dawn on Sunday morning, arriving in Maryland sometime after lunch. I’m not sure how she passed the hours until Tuesday — but then, she says, “We woke up at 4a.m., and got to Washington Monument at 5:30. Got there by subway. We stood on the circular retaining wall outside the Washington Monument, until we got barricaded off. We tried to get on top of something, because then you’re above everyone else and you feel like you’re all by yourself. Then you could get a view of the Capitol Building. It made you feel like you could almost see what was happening.”

What do you remember most? “The cold!” Two weeks later, she’s still shivering at the thought.

Did you cry? “No,” she says. (That’s curious, because sitting here on the sofa, watching the Inauguration on television with her older brother, I cried, during Rev. Lowery’s prayer.)

Were you caught up in the moment? “Sometimes.”

Are you glad you went? “Yes!”

And that may be all we ever know of Camelot, she and I.

Catherine Karnow managed — somehow — not to run into my goddaughter, there on the Mall that day. But she took lots of pictures, and I’ve posted a few of them here. Look closely at these faces, and remember.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

The day came to an end. My goddaughter found it hard to get home — first, because the police “barricaded so many streets that it was hard to navigate.” Then came the long ride back to New York, the frantic attempt to write a coherent History paper in the bumpy backseat, interrupted only by a fitful nap. There would be a long night yet to come.

But she got a 90 on that paper.

*It’s because of her truancy that I’m not reminding you of her name. Though she says that every one of her teachers knows precisely where she was on January 20, in anonymity lies her safety; in my discretion, the just reward of her valor. And in keeping a secret, lies the healthy maintenance of my godfatherhood.


Anonymous said...

I guess when you’re sixteen you have the energy to write a kick-ass paper about the roots of the Civil War and still be able to live a little history, too.

Anonymous said...

A great pairing of your talented writing and Cathy Karnow's equally talented storytelling through photography. So glad she shared these and you shared them with us. SK