BY JESSICA JORDAN
Regardless of your political affiliation, you probably heaved a sigh of relief Tuesday as inaugural events came to a peaceful conclusion.
There were no bombs, as some had feared. No credible threats against the nation’s first African-American president surfaced. And few, if any, Inauguration Day arrests were reported.
Instead of newsreels somberly reporting terrorist attacks, political commentators gushed over first lady Michelle Obama’s Jason Wu gown and remarked how comfortably the first couple danced together in the spotlight at any of the 10 glitzy inaugural balls they attended.
Let’s pause and marvel at this for a moment.
In a time when the United States is entangled in not one but two overseas wars, and the country’s economy is in shambles, the orderly assembly of more than 1 million people — arguably the largest crowd Washington, D.C. has ever seen — is a testament to the vitality of democracy, and underscores the validity of the basic rights on which this nation was founded more than 232 years ago.
Somehow, I finagled a near front row seat to this moment in history.
Sitting only a stone’s throw away from Obama as he raised his right hand and swore to serve, protect and defend the United States of America, I have to admit, I had a hard time taking it all in.
In front of a blue sky, the U.S. Capitol building towered over me and the hundreds of thousands of other Americans who braved the 23-degree cold to see for themselves the dawn of a new era. From the rickety metal folding chair just under the podium where Obama was speaking, I peered out from under the bill of my fuzzy hat to see Oprah Winfrey, the talk show goddess herself, tearing up just a few rows ahead of me. And behind me, I spotted renowned photographer Annie Lebovitz snapping photos with her trusty old Canon.
And then there was that feisty black man who must have been some kind of civil rights leader shouting from the end of my row, "Amen! Amen!" He changed it up sometimes, and occasionally threw out a "Well, well?" as the ceremony unfolded.
I overheard a well-dressed gentleman, who worked in the White House during the Clinton administration, narrate the procession of politicians into the inaugural ceremony to his male companion. From two seats over, I could catch a few offhanded Joan Rivers-type comments.
"Oh, God, she’s aged," he would say. "... Aw, that’s sweet, Bill just kissed Barbara on the cheek."
"That’s the gaudiest thing I’ve every seen," he said once.
I turned to see the fur coat that looked like it was stripped from the rare albino hyena, and yes, it really was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.
Next to this sharp critical eye, I pondered, "What am I doing here? How did I get here? I’m just the daughter of a civil engineer and furniture saleswoman from South Carolina."
But then I realized, that’s the point. We are all just somebody from somewhere. That’s who America is.
The peaceful inauguration of our new leader and the brotherly assembly of Americans on Tuesday prove we are kind, generous people. We are good people who work hard and want a better future for our children.
After all, Barack Obama is just the son of a Kenyan black man and a white woman from Kansas. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He, too, shouldered student loans with hefty price tags for years.
While past and present political leaders of the United States of America ceremoniously circled Obama as he took the oath of the highest office in the land, and perhaps the highest office in the free world, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the people on that top tier who put the black man up there with them. It wasn’t the same old shysters of Washington that put Obama up on that pedestal ... er, podium.
It was the 1 million plus people behind me who stretched for miles beyond the Capitol steps, as well as the everyday people of the United States of America who voluntarily elected him.
The guts of America — college students, housewives and political wallflowers — must have gotten on their feet and become involved in the political process to facilitate the more than 8.5 million vote margin Obama cleared over his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.
Marianne Markowitz was one of those gutsy facilitators shivering in the crowd Tuesday morning. She sat with her husband, Jeff Markowitz, who trekked with her from Chicago to the steps of the Capitol.
After I took my seat and glanced at my watch anticipating the 11:30 a.m. ceremony, I soon learned that Marianne Markowitz, a gentle blue-eyed mother of one daughter, served as the chief financial officer of Obama’s campaign. In the two years preceding the Nov. 4 election, Marianne Markowitz managed Obama’s more than $700 million campaign.
"Before she was the CFO for Obama’s campaign, Marianne was a stay-at-home mom," Jeff Markowitz said, proud that his wife had contributed much to the historic event for which we were all anxiously waiting.
"I’m excited about the way (Obama) inspires people to do things outside themselves to make the country better," Marriane Markowitz said of her expectations for the new America, the good-hearted and unified America, that Obama is leading.
And just as the band struck up its stately tunes marking the beginning of the inauguration, I scanned the faces on the National Mall, wondering where my dear friend, Lauren, might be standing. Because we had driven up from North Carolina together, I knew she was out there somewhere in the sea of people who believed America’s tide was turning.
Since I first met Lauren in kindergarten, she has always fought for what she believed in. During our tree-climbing days, we wrote letters to the circus asking them to free the elephants. So it didn’t surprise me when I received an e-mail from her about a year and a half ago in which she informed me that she was "on fire" for Obama.
I didn’t know much about the man at the time, so it was a mere blip on my radar when she said she was now the leader of her North Carolina college’s Students for Obama organization. But I certainly did take note when the star soccer player with a 4.0 grade-point average said she was putting the pursuit of her pre-med undergraduate degree on hold for the fall semester to work for Obama’s staff in Pennsylvania, which was emerging as a key battleground state.
And on Tuesday, although she’d contributed much more to the campaign than this nonpartisan journalist, I was sitting only a couple hundred feet from her hero as she waded through crowds to get a glimpse of Obama, a man she had met numerous times, on a Jumbotron.
But I knew she was in good company on the trampled mall lawn.
Her boyfriend, Nick, an African-American seminary student from the Bronx, probably had her hand clasped in his. Lauren, a freckle-faced white girl also from South Carolina, had met Nick when they were working side by side for Obama’s campaign in Pennsylvania last fall. Now living in Chicago, Nick had flown to Washington to share with Lauren the fruits of their labor.
Like Americans from sea to shining sea, Obama brought them together Tuesday.
On the morning following Obama’s staff ball event held Wednesday, Lauren reveled in the speech Obama delivered to the hundreds of young staff members his campaign had hired to knock on doors, manage phone banks and hold voter registration drives.
"You guys are just kids," Obama told his cheering supporters Wednesday night. "When people told us we couldn’t raise $25 at a time on the Internet, you didn’t know any better. You just went and did it."
Following Obama’s thank-you speech, hip-hop artist Jay-Z stormed the stage of the Washington, D.C. Armory.
In a remix of his famed song "99 Problems," Jay-Z elicited thunderous applause from the crowd when he rapped, "Ninety-nine problems but a Bush ain’t one."
After months of 20-hour work days on the campaign trail, Lauren heaved a sigh of relief.
"Now I won’t have to tell people I’m Canadian when I leave the country," she said.
I admit I, too, had taken up the habit of trying to convince people I was Canadian when I traveled abroad in an attempt to dodge scathing remarks about the former president or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But for various and vested reasons, it seems many of the nations of the world are rejoicing in Barack Obama’s leadership. Perhaps it’s Obama’s approach to greatness — that it’s earned and not given — that is restoring America’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
Now I feel I can safely say here and abroad, I am proud to be an American.