Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Difference

Eighty-eight months ago, we were told that everything had changed forever in America - and nothing would ever be the same. We were at war. There was a new sense of national purpose, of shared responsibility. We'd all have to adjust to new security measures. It was the death of irony.

Well, nothing lasts forever. I never bought the death of irony – it was resurrected within days. President Bush frittered away the world’s good will and America’s collective willingness to sacrifice. Our national dialogue became even more partisan and mean-spirited than before. The economy collapsed – just as the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001 intended.

The security measures remain, of course. I dutifully removed my shoes and coat this morning on my way home from covering the inauguration. I pulled my laptop from its cozy corduroy sheath. I padded through the metal detector in my socks. A sign announced that the TSA is exploring “Whole Body Technology” that could soon let us keep our clothes on at the airport (I thought “Whole Body Technology” was what helps me pick out the right sunscreen at Whole Foods).

Now, once again, everything has changed. Everything is different. For how long this time?

Like many of the million or two who crammed onto the frozen grounds of the National Mall, I am filled with hope. But mine is the hope that the American people won’t give up too quickly on their new president. A CBS News-New York Times poll on the eve of the inauguration found many Americans willing to wait for positive results from Barack Obama. They recognize that the United States has enormous problems, and the consensus in the survey was that it might take two years for Mr. Obama to get the creaking, leaking ship of state back on course.

But in a month, or two, or three, when President Obama’s First 100 Days have been televised, scrutinized and digitized, when the chattering class has picked apart the ins and outs and ups and downs and nits and bits of every presidential stumble and hiccup – and unemployment is still rising, and the stock market is still sputtering (or worse), and the troops are still in Iraq – how quickly will that patience wane?

The public has a short memory. It also has a short attention span. And it famously keeps its presidents on a very short leash. George Herbert Walker Bush went from a record 91% approval rating in the spring of 1991 – to summarily drummed out of office 18 months later. His son went from an approval rating in the same neighborhood after 9/11…to Tuesday’s ignominious departure, taken away by helicopter as tens of thousands below hooted and waved bye-bye to the most unpopular, and many would say the worst, president in American history.

You may say I’m a cynic. No - I’m as idealistic and romantic as any soul on this earth. I just also believe in pragmatic realism, and I come by it honestly. I have been a student of history and politics for more than 40 years, and it just doesn’t pay to burden a fellow human being with impossibly unrealistic expectations. Never forget that Barack Hussein Obama is just a man. He’s an uncommonly disciplined man, a very smart man, who is thoughtful and eloquent, not to mention handsome and tall, which never hurts when it comes to self-confidence and the ability to persuade others. But it is a rare soul who can fairly bear the burden of others’ dreams. Every generation or so, an extraordinary individual transcends our natural limitations: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. But even among those, only Mandela lived to see his people enjoy the freedoms he helped them achieve.

Someday, perhaps Mr. Obama’s name will fall naturally at the end of that line. Most of us hope so. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t; he said on the radio this morning that he hopes President Obama fails, because he disagrees with his policies. At the moment, thankfully, he is an exception.

For some, Mr. Obama has already delivered. Janet Jones Kern drove from Farmington Hills, Michigan all the way to Washington to see Mr. Obama sworn in. She is white. In 1971, she gave birth to a biracial daughter. She was a single mom, raising a half-black child alone in the Midwest.

“I always felt alone,” she told me. “I endured a lot of hard times, a lot of pain and bias.” She eventually married a black man. Her daughter married, too, and had children of her own.

“But I always felt that the playing field wasn’t exactly level, and that I brought them all into a tough world. I just always felt this nagging doubt, that there was a deficit for my children and grandchildren. Now I feel validated. My little five-year-old granddaughter can look me in the eye and say, ‘Grandma, I’m going to grow up and become President of the United States of America.’ And for the first time,” she told me, in the cold shadow of the Washington Monument, “it’s really true! I just feel joyous. I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore, I feel like the whole world is with me.”

She didn’t have a ticket. She got nowhere close to the West Front of the Capitol. But, she said, “I’m just thrilled to breathe the same air as this man. I know it’s going to be long and hard and tough” for him to turn the country around – but for her, the difference is already real, and in her case, it will last forever.

The difference is already there for Nancy Pelosi, too. I’ve interviewed the Speaker of the House three times in the past ten days, the last time yesterday in her Capitol office. From her windows, we could see the presidential podium, the scaffolds, the chairs waiting to be taken down after the proceedings of the day before. We looked out along the empty Mall, to the Washington Monument and beyond, where so many people had shivered and cheered and cried 24 hours earlier. For Speaker Pelosi, the change has already come.

“I just can’t stop smiling. It’s an incredible thing!” She beamed at me. “No one knows better than I how important it was that we make this change. President Bush’s presidency wasn’t just one of missed opportunities,” she said, “but of making matters worse. Whether it’s the war in Iraq, the economy, the budget, the environment – you name it. He took us backward. When that helicopter went up yesterday,” referring to the Marine chopper that carried the Bushes away from the Capitol, “I thought – bye bye!”

And here she waved at the sky. “It’s like a ten-ton anvil being lifted from my chest.”

And did she feel even a single pang of pity for President Bush, as he sat on that stage listening to the new president trash the Bush policies? Uh…no.

“I don’t have to be concerned about what President Bush is thinking anymore. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. I don’t feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for the one in six children in America who are living in poverty. I feel sorry for the people who have lost their jobs because of the economic downturn. President Bush? Goodbye!”

The change is also real for the African-American security officer who helped me find the Speaker’s office, after I got lost in the maze that is our Capitol. As he was walking me to the proper elevator, he suddenly started giggling.

“I know, “ I said sheepishly, “I’m an idiot. I went to the Senate side by mistake.”

“No, it’s not that,” he said with a smile.
What then?
“My president is a black man.”
And with a giddy guffaw, he pushed the elevator button and sent me on my way.

President Obama is already on his way, signing Executive Orders to close Guantanamo Bay, make sure American interrogators don’t torture terror suspects and freeze the pay of White House staffers. In the next few days, he’ll sign more, reversing Bush policies on abortion, ethics, maybe on gays in the military. These are things he can do with the stroke of a pen. Would that resuscitating the economy and ending two wars were that easy. Simple principle and belief aren’t enough to create jobs and restore lost wealth. For those who have placed perhaps too much faith in him, who have turned Barack Obama into a vessel for all their national aspirations, the wait for things to truly be different may take a little longer. They may end up disappointed when he can’t be everything they thought he was. Perhaps they should temper their hopes with a dash of reality, lest they be dashed completely if he fails to live up to those lofty expectations.

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:

(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'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.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On the Verge of History

If I have felt anything like this before, I can't remember when.

The energy is palpable. The sense of euphoria, of optimism, of possibility, is coursing through Washington D.C. like fresh blood through the veins of a previously anemic man. Our capital city has come crackling to life. People are pouring into town by the hundreds of thousands, clogging the streets, thronging the monuments and memorials and museums, high-fiving total strangers and bursting into spontaneous whoops of joy.

Maybe this is how it felt when World War Two ended. I wouldn't be surprised to see a sailor bend a nurse over backwards and kiss her, hard, on the National Mall.

I arrived in Washington Sunday afternoon by Amtrak from New York. The train was packed, completely sold out, and except for the woman who got all in a snit when I politely informed her husband that he had taken my seat while I was visiting the snack car (somehow this was my fault?) and could he please relocate - everyone was in high spirits, unusually friendly and open and sharing. Can we help that passenger with her bag? Yes we can! Can we hold the door for an older couple and help them find seats? Yes we can! Can we share our stories of where we came from and why we're here and what being at the Obama inauguration will mean? Yes we can!

The Amtrak crowd spilled into Union Station to find Enrique Iglesias rehearsing on a stage in the middle of the terminal (at least I think that's who it was). The train station will host the Latino Inaugural Ball Tuesday night, one of about a dozen official balls around town. From there it was out onto the broad boulevards so famously laid out by Pierre L'Enfant more than 200 years ago. Now they are lined with portapotties and police barricades. Heavily armed cops in SWAT gear roam the streets. Helicopters chatter overhead. Emergency vehicles race past, sirens wailing. And through it all, the people come, smiling, laughing, chatting with complete strangers, riding a buoyant wave of Obamamania.

The Mall was a crush of people, from memorial to shining memorial. Lincoln gazed down from his throne on a crowd right out of "Forrest Gump." The red light high atop Washington's monument blinked upon maybe 500,000 people below, some of whom camped out for hours for free seats at the "We Are One" concert. They lined the sides of the Reflecting Pool; they spilled out onto Constitution Avenue. They clapped their hands and sang "Shout!" with a surprisingly ebullient Garth Brooks. They belted out the "oh, oh, oh, oh!" coda to "Pride" with U2. They wept as they rang out "This Land Is Your Land" with Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, strumming a banjo as if he were singing "Little Boxes" to me back in the 1960s. Towards the end of the show, the President-elect strode onto the stage and told the adoring crowd "Anything is possible." Right now, right here, it sure feels that way.

P.S. I went to the California Gala tonight and have scored VIP passes to the hot-hot-hot Huffington Post party tomorrow night at the Newseum. There's lots to say about all that but somehow it feels trivial at the moment. We'll get to that next time.