Last week I had the privilege of being a Brit observing a very American affair, the 57th Presidential inauguration festivities celebrating the election of US President Barack Obama. The inauguration is a longstanding US tradition that began in April 1789 when America's first President, George Washington, took his oath of office. Back then, it was a decidedly formal, staid, and monochromatic affair. Not so in the age of Obama.
This year, almost one million people attended Monday's inauguration, far more than the 700,000 that were expected, making it the second largest inauguration turnout in history. The largest, of course, was four years ago when 1.8 million people attended Obama's first inauguration. The capitol city had been transformed into a hub of national pride.
In a weekend full of festivities, the actual taking of the oath on the steps of the Capitol is only one. Throughout the years, this Constitutional requirement has expanded into ceremonies and balls that last days. After the President takes the oath, he then leads a parade, celebrates with his family, and even participates in a prayer service.
Through friends who work at the White House, Pentagon and State Department or who were big Democratic Party donors, both my wife and I were lucky enough to have been given tickets to most of the major events in the days prior to and following the inauguration. Some events are public and some private, but all functions require tickets for prime viewing areas. I found the process of how tickets are traded, vied over and distributed fascinating.
We started our inauguration experience at the First Ladies Kid's Concert hosted by Michelle Obama. This is an event primarily aimed at supporting military families and takes place two days before the inauguration. A new addition to the inauguration festivities, the audience was comprised mainly of the children of US military personnel killed in the line of duty and, therefore, the event had a very military focus. I thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment that included Usher, Kate Perry, the Far East Revolution and the entire cast of Glee. Both Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden spoke at the event.
Our next day began early, we attended the actual inauguration and we were seated around the steps of the Capitol building close to the action. We were told we would get exclusive seating, but I guess we had a very different idea of what exclusive meant because we were squeezed in amongst one thousand other people. We had to queue in the bitter cold for around 1 hour whilst going through security. But it was worth it once we heard Obama take the oath and give his speech. The national anthem, sung by Beyoncé, concluded the actual inauguration ceremony. To be honest, we were a bit disappointed with the performance, so we felt vindicated in our opinions when it was revealed that she was lip syncing. Exhausted we rushed back to get some shut eye before our next big event the same day - the official inauguration ball.
The inauguration ball was one of just two balls that President Obama promised to attend this year. The balls are private and are a way for the President to say 'thank you' to some of his biggest donors and supporters from the previous year's campaign. They are usually a 'who's who' of the Washington D.C. social elite. Everyone dresses to impress and is there to be seen. After dressing up, we arrived at the ball to find another queue and more security. After seeing the President with the First Lady, though, we could not help, despite our nationality, be infected with the pride and patriotism that filled the room when he took the stage.
Whilst for many the inauguration experience entailed long queuing on some of the coldest days of the year, the American spirit and enthusiasm for the events was unquenchable. The national pride on display was contagious, whether it was Katy Perry parading on the concert stage wearing the national flag, the large swathes of crowds cheering every word of Obama's inaugural address or the overly enthusiastic volunteers at the ball raising the spirits of frozen attendees.
The National Prayer Service is held the day after the inauguration and concludes the weekend's festivities. With reminders of accountability to a higher order and admonitions of human limitations, the language of American exceptionalism was paused momentarily. The prayer service was a congregation of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh representatives showcasing a unity through diversity that transcended beyond national identity. I understand that there is a similar event in the UK with a predominately Christian focus, perhaps the organisers should consider making a more inclusive event.
Since the presidency is the closest thing Americans have to royalty, this event is a celebration of power and pride. But instead of being for the President only, it honours the process. After gruelling campaigns and vitriolic elections, the inauguration celebrates the democratic process of a peaceful transition of power. It's certainly no coronation or jubilee celebration, but it certainly is a triumph of the American spirit, US religious and cultural diversity and its democratic ideals.