Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com.
The Washington Monument stood wreathed in dust kicked up by the masses, as if the Mall were the nation’s largest feedlot. Everyone there for today’s inauguration wanted a piece of history, and the more ambitious of us imagined taking home something tangible. Of the 2 million present, no more than a quarter million had tickets. The rest of us dreamed of squeezing to the front of the crowd, and perhaps picking up a stray program. Or maybe, like football fans storming the field and pulling down the uprights, we’d rush the podium at the end and each take home a fragment of a presidential seal.
At 9 a.m., when I was still four blocks away from the Mall, the crowds walked silently and purposefully, with a determination that made me think they might have the capacity for podium-rushing after all. They had the dead look in their eyes of men and women preparing for battle, ready to elbow Rosa Parks in the face to get a better view of the swearing-in. I entered the Mall at 18th Street Northwest, an unticketed section, which meant that everyone knew they would have to defend their ground.
Not until the Washington Monument came into view did the crowds swell and take on alarming forms. Turning back became steadily tougher, and at one point the only calm area was around a few PETA pamphleteers, whose monomania (“Thanks for not wearing fur!”) was so obviously tiresome that the crowd knew, as if by instinct, that they should give the activists a 20-foot berth. I talked with them briefly, because I thought they were giving out free hot chocolate, and because I wanted a souvenir photo of me hugging a woman in a rabbit suit in front of a shivering mob.
Here and there, military policemen watched the crowds, but they gave no instructions and no warnings. I stumbled on a First Aid tent once, by chance. At crowd bottlenecks, old women ended up having to hop concrete barriers, and the pressure at my back was constant. Just east of the Monument, at the groundling section closest to the ceremony—but still a mile and a half from the Capitol—the crowd assumed Chinese-subway densities. Claustrophobes whined, and an ill-tempered man dragging an all-terrain Segway over my feet said, “Excuse me,” in the way that means “excuse you.”
At every huge Washington political gathering, the crazies come out in force. Here they were swallowed by the crowd. I don’t mean PETA activists, who at least have a point. I mean the woman in Foggy Bottom, marching proudly with a sign that said “You Are Being Watched” and featured interesting quotes from Hitler and Benjamin Franklin. Or the crew of Christian zealots who took up the mantle of the “God Hates Fags” protesters, and whom nearly everyone insulted as they passed by in an impromptu counterprotest.
But these nutbags were few. The effect of the crowd, and of the arduous trek required to get near the action, was to drown them out and filter them away from the prime real estate on the Mall. Anyone unhinged enough to bring a placard onto the Mall and scream all freezing morning about the imperiled soul of Pete Seeger was probably too unhinged to figure out how to get to the better parts of the show.
To reach the better parts of the show required effort and ingenuity. What they didn’t require was a ticket. My BlackBerry’s connection worked intermittently, and I received forlorn reports from friends once proud to have wangled tickets—tickets once could have fetched thousands of dollars on the black market. The messages now sounded depressed and furious. “Am in line, but it isn’t moving.” “We’re giving up. It’s a fraud. Secret Service are bastards.”
I moved up Independence Avenue Southwest past the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. (There was some poetry to this: the previous highest-ranked executive official of acknowledged nonwhite ancestry was Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s forgotten vice president, a member of Oklahoma’s Kaw nation.) Here the crowd had rarefied into a group of devoted Obamaphiles—people waving Silver tickets that would have entitled them to better treatment had the authorities not given up on honoring them. I came to suspect that the tickets were nothing more than a suggestion, a way to communicate scarcity to the public before the event, and thus to reduce the ultimate turn-out.
At 11:26 a.m., the groundlings in front of the American Indian museum started coveting the open ground beyond the barricades, and began overturning fences and metal grilles. We ran, and somehow no one stumbled and suffered a Hajj-like trampling. In the end I stood at the middle of the edge of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, close enough that I ignored the Jumbotrons and preferred to squint at the live event.
As the loudspeakers announced the presence of former executive-office holders, the assembled masses ignored the names Mondale and Quayle, then perked to attention to boo Bush père and cheer the Clintons. The name of Bush fils provoked moans and raspberries, and after that, nearly everyone won ecstatic applause. The crowd forgave Obama and Roberts their awkward stumbles, and the sound it emitted upon the completion of the oath sounded as much like relief as joy. The assembly held its form for about three-quarters of the address, when small numbers began breaking off to effect an early exit. Small numbers, and then large: three hours of pushing got me within 800 feet of Obama, and getting out took nearly as long. The claustrophobes whined more, and even I became impatient with the pace until I started drafting behind an ambulance on 18th Street.
The final tally? Chain-link fences climbed: two. Concrete and steel barriers hopped: three. Fences lifted up and crawled under: one. And as for souvenirs: one PETA pamphlet, slightly crumpled.
Graeme Wood is an Atlantic staff editor.