Wherein life teaches a journalist a lesson
I’ll write something on the larger themes and context soon, but for now, I’m exhausted, my feet hurt, my back hurts, and all I’ve got in me is an account of my own experience, which turned out to be not at all what I expected.
Grist had one press pass to the swearing-in ceremony. Since Kate got to go to the green ball (more on that from her soon), I got the pass. Great, right? A chance to see history up close, surrounded by other privileged and important members of the media.
Because I assumed I’d basically cruise in past the crowds, as we did on Sunday for the concert, I didn’t leave the house until about 10am. The ceremony started at 11:30 and I had about a half-hour walk … I thought. On the Obama site’s media guide, it said that the press entrance is "TBA." (Kinda wondering when they’re going to announce it.) Anyway, I tacked toward the Capitol, assuming I’d be close to the proceedings, and approached a cop at the first entrance point.
"Where’s the media entrance?"
"I don’t know, but you can’t come in here, it’s for ticket holders."
Hm. Okay. Next entrance point, slightly farther away.
"Where’s the media entrance?"
"Oh, it’s on 15th and H, I think."
"Are you sure? That’s the other way, away from the ceremony."
"That’s what I heard."
Grr. Fine. I schlep through the packed crowds, eight or nine blocks to 15th and H, glancing nervously at my watch.
Finally get there. "Is this the media entrance?"
"This is for Lafayette media pass holders. You have a national mall media pass. You want to go a a couple blocks over."
"Is this the media entrance?"
"No, that’s at 15th and H."
"No it isn’t, not for this kind of pass, I just went there."
"Then I don’t know, but you can’t come in this way."
Argh. Call a number Kate sends me for the press contact. "I have a national mall press pass. Where do I go?"
"I don’t know."
Ask another cop: "Where is the press entrance?"
"Did you try 15th and H?"
[Choke.] Schlep another block, ask a Secret Service agent.
"Where’s the media entrance for national mall press pass holders?"
"You want to go down to 19th, then you can use the pass to get into the mall and work your way back up."
Ah! Again through the packed crowds, 10 more minutes to finally make my way through the crush into the mall (no one checks for passes). By that point I was way, waaay down, past the Washington Monument, by the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And with only 15 minutes left to find the tent.
I ask a park ranger at a booth cruelly labeled, "Information."
"Where’s the press area?"
"Probably closer to the Capitol."
[Restrain myself from violence.]
"I was told to come this way by five separate people."
"I’ll call and ask." He mutters a request into his radio and we wait for an excruciating five minutes as he waits for an answer. Finally he nods, walks over to me, and turns to point back at the Lincoln Memorial. "It’s back that way."
"Are you serious?"
"That’s what they told me."
By then I’d asked fully a dozen people, and heard a dozen different things, and hiked probably two miles, over an hour straight, carrying my laptop bag. I wander in the direction he pointed … stop, feeling ridiculous … wander back toward the Washington Monument, thinking perhaps I could join the crowds there … but it’s packed … wander back away, torn … paralyzed and anxious …
And then it’s 11:30, and the announcer begins intoning the arrival of Senators and administration officials.
At a loss, I fight my way over to the far side of the reflecting pool, where a small crowd is facing away from the Capitol, watching a jury-rigged Jumbotron — literally the farthest away from the Capitol anyone could get on the mall and still have a screen to view.
So there I sit, in the dirt, by myself, as far from an Important Person as you can be, stewing with anger at the organizers and feeling sorry for myself.
But a few minutes in I start noticing the things people are shouting at the screen, and to each other. How Cheney is getting payback for shooting someone in the face. How cute the Obama girls are. How damn right it’s time to leave Iraq to Iraqis. ("You said it, brother!" came a response.) I start seeing tears welling up in old men’s eyes; African-American faces exchanging glances full of wonder and thrill; couples and friends moving closer together, holding hands, hugging. I laugh at one point as a group of teenage girls begins clapping and jumping up and down …
And bit by bit, I forget about all the tense maneuvering of the last few days, my efforts to get into this or that party, get this or that seat, or ticket, or invite, or privilege. The tension drains away, and I begin to feel faintly ridiculous at the status envy that grips me every time I enter this city. And I remember that this speech, this day, isn’t for important people. It’s for these people. And I’m one of them.