Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Diary of an Inauguration

I know, you want to know all about last night's Huffington Post bash. Was that really only last night? Seems so long ago already...

But how can I blog about a silly, celebrity-soaked party after what we witnessed today? I think I'll make the HuffPo report tomorrow's postscript to this adventure. For now, I offer instead this blow-by-blow of today's incredible proceedings:

TUESDAY, JANUARY 20, 2009
(as prescribed by the Constitution of the United States)

1:45am: Glad I only had one vodka martini at the party, I finally get to bed, just a few short hours before it's time to cover the swearing-in of a new American president.

4:00am: Fifteen minutes before the alarm is supposed to go off, I get up, awakened by sirens and the sounds of police setting up barricades outside my hotel. Yes, I have only slept two hours and 15 minutes, and fitfully at that.

4:49am: I leave the hotel, stepping out into a police zone. The cops have blocked the front door of my hotel. I am forced to exit through the service entrance on a side street, weaving through the hotel kitchen on a route that reminds me too much of Robert F. Kennedy's last moments.

5:02am: Lugging two heavy bags of broadcasting gear, I board the Metro, bound for the Capitol. Luckily, the surging crowd is getting off at my station, not on, so the train isn't that crowded. Most of this pre-dawn throng is heading for the National Mall, not the Capitol itself.

5:22am: I exit the train and stroll up to the Capitol grounds. Hey, this is going great! Empty train, no delays, smooth sailing. I have been told by the Secret Service that I must be on site between 4 and 6am, for screening of all my equipment and to get in place on the Capitol's West Front. It is 22 degrees.

5:23am: Uh-oh. Everything grinds to a halt. I join the longest security line I have ever seen. It's mostly media, mixed with a large group of military medical personnel in camouflage. The queue snakes out the security trailer, down Capitol Hill, around a bend...it's at least two blocks long. Everyone is stunned.

6:28am: One hour and five minutes later, it's finally my turn to go through the magnetometers. The temperature has dropped to 20 degrees. We have all been shivering in the pre-dawn cold. Photographers mostly, from Time, Reuters, Agence France-Press, Polaris. Some have endured the delay in good humor. Others have not.

6:29am: An officer scans the bar code on my special inaugural credential. A friendly "blip" brings my name onto the screen of his handheld scanner. I am good to go. The photog behind me hears an unfortunate "bonk" sound instead - kind of like losing at Pong (dating myself, I know). He swears that youthful indiscretion was supposed to be expunged from his record! Can't they try again? After FIVE scans, the machine finally accepts him and he's cleared to photograph Barack Obama.

6:34am: After lingering in the heated security trailer as long as we can, we are finally chased back out into the cold by the Capitol Police.

6:35am: We cross the West Front onto the Capitol steps. Everything is in place for the inauguration. Rows of seats are set up behind the podium for members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and invited guests and dignitaries. I am shown to my seat. This can't be possible - I get to sit this close?

6:36am: Somebody pinch me. I have a chair, and a desk, with electricity, high-speed Internet and an ISDN broadcasting line. It is on an elevated platform directly to the right of the presidential podium, at the same height as the lectern. It is maybe 75 feet away from where Barack Obama will take the Oath of Office. The line of sight is unobstructed. I could hit the president with a snowball. Luckily, it isn't snowing. Yet.

6:37am to 11:30 am: The temperature drops to 19. With the wind chill, it feels like eight degrees. I can no longer feel my feet. The reporter to my right flees the platform with frostbite in his toes. He never returns. I wish I'd brought my other hat. And a space heater. And a blanket. And maybe some electrically heated down booties.

7:00am: My laptop shuts itself down and goes into hibernation. It becomes a block of iced aluminum. It stays that way for the duration of the inauguration. So much for blogging. So much for my high-speed DSL line. Guess I won't be writing my scripts on the computer!

7:01am: The ink in my pen stops flowing. It's frozen. Hmmm. Guess I won't be writing my scripts at all. I'll have to ad lib the rest of the day. It could be worse: two other reporters have their broadcasting gear freeze up. They are forced to report by phone the rest of the morning.

7:30am: We all decide to kill some time with a little breakfast. Except our energy bars, pastries and bagels have frozen solid. They would make nice doorstops. Or hockey pucks. They are like little carbohydrate icebergs. Our bottles of water have also frozen solid. They become weapons. The Secret Service considers confiscating them but takes pity on us. Some apply little hot pad toe warmers to the bottles, hoping to thaw them out so we can actually drink something over the next five hours. No such luck. I slap the toe warmers onto my feet. Unfortunately, this requires removing my shoes, which I think negates the positive effect of applying the warmers.

8:00am-11:30am: A vast throng fills the National Mall, from just west of us to the Lincoln Memorial, which is about two miles away. Every section between the Capitol and the Washington Monument is filled to capacity. Beyond that, some late arrivals fill in the spaces around the Reflecting Pool and at Lincoln's feet, but that area isn't completely full. We are given a preliminary crowd estimate of approximately one and a half million. It is an awesome sight. A slight turn to the right and I can gaze along the length of Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also lined now by the smaller parade crowd.

On the platform in front of us, senators and governors and former presidents begin to arrive. There's a large California contingent - Governor Schwarzenegger, former Governor Gray Davis, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass. There's John Kerry talking with John McCain. Chris Dodd chats with his state mate, Joe Lieberman. Teddy Kennedy limps out to a big roar from the crowd. George H.W. Bush limps out too, looking surprisingly unsteady. Dick Cheney does him one better, coming out in a wheelchair after hurting himself moving out of the vice presidential residence. In a long black trenchcoat and black fedora, hunched in the wheelchair, he looks like the black-clad guy from Spy vs. Spy.

Below us, celebrities fill some of the next best seats. Don King, waving an American flag, holds court. His shock of gray hair isn't as tall as it used to be. There's Denzel Washington, and Beyonce, and Jay-Z and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

11:30am: The ceremony is behind schedule. Howard Gantman, longtime aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein, told me two weeks ago that Obama absolutely must be sworn in before noon, to comply with the Constitution. The oath is scheduled for 11:56. But here they are, running about 15 minutes late. Perhaps they'll push Yo Yo Ma back, or Aretha Franklin.

Nope. They continue with the program. Obama is sworn in a few minutes late. It doesn't matter - according to the Constitution, he becomes president at noon anyway, even though he hasn't taken the oath yet.

Random observations: President-elect Obama lost in apparent rapture as he listens to Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman play John Williams. Is he going over his speech? Pondering the import of what is about to happen? Simply lost in the music? Meanwhile, his wife gets up and fusses over the kids....President Bush fidgeting and smirking and shifting in his seat. He seems uncomfortable. Maybe it's the cold. Maybe it's that a million people booed lustily when he was introduced. Maybe it's because during his speech, Obama essentially denounces all of the Bush-Cheney policies and says we'll have no more of that. That's got to be tough for Bush to hear, sitting three feet away...Denzel Washington, in long coat and knit cap, suddenly leaping to his feet in the middle of President Obama's speech, and standing in rapt attention the rest of the way...and most of all, one to two million people, completely still and silent, even in physical discomfort, absolutely transfixed by the words of their new president. Most of the time, the only sounds are the military helicopters and the booming voice of Mr. Obama, ringing out in a slight delay across the Mall. People hang on every word. It gives me chills - or maybe that's just the numbing cold.

12:37 (or so - I can no longer operate my iPhone to tell the time, because you can't use touch screens with gloves on, and with the gloves off, my fingers aren't generating enough heat to activate the touch screen): It's done. President Obama and the new First Lady depart the stage. The podium guests discard their blue wool commemorative blankets. We on the media platform covet them but the stern regard of the Secret Service dissuades us from trying to snag one. I hobble up the steps behind the presidential platform, looking for the nearest bathroom. The walk brings some feeling back into my feet. A knot of guards stands between me and the Port-a-Potty.

"Do you think I can use that Port-a-Potty? Would that be okay? Please?" I beg the nearest one, a tall guy in a dark suit, wrapped in one of those blue blankets.

He looks at me in surprise. "Why, I think...Yes! I say yes!"

I realize this one is not with the Secret Service. It's the actor John Cusack. For some reason, he was seated on the main dais with all those politicians.

"Well, you would Say Anything!" He gets the joke. I ask him what's written on the souvenir blanket. "It doesn't Say Anything," he deadpans.

As I limp into the port-a-john, a military helicopter rumbles into the air from the Capitol's East Front. It roars right over my head. It is now-former President Bush and his wife Laura, leaving the Capitol. A rousing cheer goes up from the remaining crowd, as they realize the significance. I fumble for my camera to get a shot but my frozen fingers aren't nimble enough.

John Cusack leaves. Don King runs his hand through his hair and makes sure no one else wants to interview him. The Obamas have gone inside the Capitol, for a gala luncheon led by my senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein. The transfer of power is complete. As always, it's been orderly, peaceful, and rich with ritual and tradition. And, this time, absolutely extraordinary, both bone-chilling and spine-tingling.

It will take me two hours to trudge all the way back to my hotel, schlepping my heavy gear, due to road closures and an overwhelmed Metro. At 5:07pm, I am finally indoors for the first time in 12 hours. I put my laptop on the radiator. It thaws out and boots up. I massage my numbed toes. I get some hot soup, my first food since a yogurt while in the security line at 5:30am. It's been a long, exhausting, cold day, and I still have about seven hours of work to do.

I will never forget a single second.