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'He gets us' 

Reflections on being at the second inauguration of Barack Obama

Words fail.

We rose at dawn and walked through freezing cold under a sky of pink and gold. Quiet, empty streets soon filled with people dressed in long fur coats and wool, thick hats and hooded parkas.

We flew all night in packed planes and walked all day to see the sights. Sleep-deprived and cold, we were all fired up inside with electric anticipation.

On our third morning, I lay awake for an hour before the wake-up from my cell phone. When it went off, I leapt from the bed as if it were on fire. Bags packed and ready for check-out, we were out of the room by 7 a.m.

It was for this morning that we came. This morning, pink and brisk, the start of his second term. The people have spoken and been heard. We are coming now, walking together on the broad streets of the capitol, streaming into the heart of the city where the center of power resides.

Ah, but we the people are the center of power. And we are on a journey. We made our reservations long before we knew we could come. We were hopeful. Just like he was.

We make our way toward the mall, surrounded and greeted by hundreds of smiling faces shouting out “Good morning!” They are all wearing red hats, and they are ebullient, like us.

At 7:30 am. “La Bamba” bursts overhead from loudspeakers and my feet pick up the beat. It is a good time to dance, but there is more walking ahead before we reach the place on the mall where we can get as close as possible to the ceremony.

Words still fail. I shiver but not from the cold. This is way beyond excitement. Anticipation, hope, relief—none of these are quite enough to prompt the journey we have made. Something about a moment in history. A turning. I have sensed it before. Another inauguration, another season of hope, and every bit as wondrous. That was 20 years ago, long before we could imagine a black man being elected president, even once. Five decades earlier, I watched a small black and white screen with my 1-year-old baby as Martin Luther King spoke out about his dream to a crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. History was made that day, too, and hearts and minds forever changed.

I had to come back for this. I had to bear witness. Along with a million compatriots standing next to me breathing frosty air and buying hand-warmers to hold in double-gloved hands and wishing the coffee concession wasn’t so far away and didn’t have long lines. I forego that treat so as not to miss a thing.

I get separated from my friends, but I make new ones as we stand together for more than three hours and the cold rises up from the ground through my boots. I meet Vicki, from a small town in Ohio. We share trail mix and pictures of our grandchildren. She will drive back home tonight with friends, through the West Virginia snow.

The sky darkens, the temperature drops, and we wait. The huge monitors are hard to see. If I move back from the crowd in front, leaving some space between us, I have a better chance, so long as I can keep standing on my toes. Which warms my feet. Bruce Springsteen sings “The Rising.” I watch him on the monitor, backed up by a red-robed choir, and even though it’s a recording from 2009, it inspires.

VIPs arrive. I take pictures of strangers, and stark winter trees like bones against the marble buildings. It is all so very BIG here, a monumental time to match the monuments we visited two days ago.

They pass out flags, and I wave mine in a joyous arc. I am not a flag-waver. I am more inclined to writing and marching. But this is a time for waving. We shout and wave in welcome and exhilaration as the first lady and the girls take their seats.

Perfect staging, perfect timing, this is spectacle to the max. Maybe spectacle is a part of patriotism. But, for me, patriotism, is mostly quiet, almost spiritual, a private stirring, like the flutters in my heart when hearing “America the Beautiful.”

And the phrase “… and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!”

The president arrives in the dim hallway, before coming out into the sunshine that has now broken through the clouds. He walks tall, his head towering over those around him. He is regal, like a king. Is that what we do with our presidents? Make them into American royalty? But I have no interest in analysis today.

I am interested only in this moment. Here, now. This very big moment to which I bear witness, and, by so doing, become a participant. For isn’t participation the point of democracy? This moment is about passion and trust and pride. It is about shared ideals and feeling understood, that sense of intimacy that happens when we realize that someone really “gets” us. It is that same sense, on a communal level, that pervades the mall today. He gets us. And we, him.

Here he is. Barack Hussein Obama slowly descends the steps. We are transported with wild joy. Flags wave, my voice grows hoarse, and I keep on yelling.

His short address is packed with history and poetry and dynamic vision. I strain to catch each word, knowing that I will want to watch it again and again, without the distraction of a million others on the mall between the Washington monument and the Congressional steps.

So soon are we pouring out into the wide streets. As I am now alone, I zip in and out of the cracks in the crowd, in a rush back to the hotel. There is a plane to catch. 

Words still fail. It is too much to take in. I feel like a huge smile skipping along the street, pausing here and there for one last souvenir. I have lost my friends but I will find them soon. And I rather enjoy this time of private savoring. Just as I will while waiting for my plane and watching the airport TV, and through the long hours flying home while they dance into the night in Washington. I will look longingly at the little screen on the plane, still wanting just a little more of that exhilaration.

I was there. I wouldn’t have missed it.

Susan Pyburn is a photographer living in San Luis Obispo. Send comments to the executive editor at

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