My sons remember the bitter cold. And they remember the warmth.
They felt it on the toasty subway car jammed to the doorsills with people at 5 a.m., smiling a knowing smile at strangers riding with us from Columbia Heights to the National Mall and Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration.
They also remember the warmth of the massive crowd that day, shoulder-to-shoulder in the expanse between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, where you were likely to step on a toe or jolt an elbow just by shifting your weight from one foot to the other. But everyone understood and smiled back at them and forgave. The shared joy was palpable.
As Donald Trump prepared to officially become the nation’s 45th president on Friday, I returned to the Mall in search of that feeling. In 2013, I took my oldest and youngest sons, Keith Jr. and Noah, to see Obama’s inauguration. I wanted them to know what it felt like to see a black man assume the highest office in the land. I wanted them to feel the pride they’d find in the president who looked something like them; in the presidency that was newly achievable; in the country that had made a monumental leap in a cosmic blink of an eye.
Their middle brother, Matthew, had been there four years earlier, in 2009, in even colder temperatures, shivering along with other students in a young leaders program, warmed by the history unfolding before him. I wanted to feel all that with them.
So, after a scorched-earth presidential campaign and too many years of corrosive social and racial discord that all but obliterated the warmth and good will of two inaugurations, I was back. How would it feel on the subway; in the security lines; on the Mall?
Some of the answers, I already knew. I didn’t expect to get the warm fuzzies when people booed the exiting First Couple or aimed that special animus at the vanquished Hillary Clinton. This was not my crowd. I didn’t expect to groove to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or the Chorale from Missouri. This was not my music. Even when the masses chanted things my sons chanted in 2013 (U-S-A! U-S-A!) and sang the National Anthem that I sang with such gusto then, I felt outside of it. This was not my party.
I set out to meet parents who, like me, had brought their children to their first inauguration so that they, like my sons, could feel that feeling. Would it be the same for them (minus the black president part, I mean) as it was for me?
Thomas Eickes, a Navy man from Norfolk, Va., had a look I recognized. He was standing near one of the massive outdoor television screens with Thomas Jr., 8, huddled close against the chill while dignitaries took their seats far in the distance. His eyes told me he was there with purpose. With pride.
“It’s important for him to see a peaceful exchange of power,” he said of Tommy. “I wanted him to see that people are free to come here and voice their opinions. My hope is that one day, when he’s old enough to vote, that this will encourage him to get involved and make a difference.”
Yes. I wanted that for my sons. He went on:
“Everybody’s been so juiced. On the train; here. No one’s hostile. It’s been great so far.”
There were jeers around us when the cameras so much as glanced by Hillary Clinton, but there were more gracious moments, like the applause that greeted the announcement of Barack and Michelle Obama as they descended the Capitol steps.
“People will always have different opinions, but we’re all Americans,” Thomas Sr. went on, looking down at Tommy. “I want him to appreciate it; to know that it’s important.”
I was with him. In lock step. And then …
“I’m optimistic that people will have more opportunity for jobs,” he said. “My hope is that [Trump] will turn things around. This country is in a moral downward spiral. Our family values; what made this country what it is … I hope this is an opportunity for people to get their values back.”
My wish for our children as they stood in the cold four and eight years ago was that they’d see an America that was finally living values we’ve never fully realized: dignity and opportunity for all; the beginning of bigotry’s end and the true embrace of our diversity; action behind the notion that we are each our brother’s keeper.
I’d asked a man earlier, Chuck Taylor of Merritt Island, Fl., when it was that America was last great, inasmuch as he’d invoked Trump’s campaign slogan. It was definitely before the “super socialism” of the Obama years, he told me. It was around the 1960s, when jobs were good, poverty levels were low, and “the biggest percentage of the human race was doing well.”
That was not my 1960s.
Taylor’s son Mike was there, and he’d brought his 19-year-old nephew, Taylor Wharton, to feel the optimism and national pride; to be a part of something historic.
“It feels like a groundswell,” Wharton said as we waited in the interminable security line to get onto the National Mall. “It’s like the 4th of July in January. I hope we’re bridging the divide. Everybody puts a label on us. We have to get to the place where, just because some police do bad things, all police aren’t bad, or just because some college students protest and get arrested, it doesn’t mean that all college students are bad.”
On a whim that morning, I’d sent a note to Noah, Matthew and Keith Jr. Matt is a 24-year-old college graduate living in Gainesville, Fl. Keith Jr., 31, is a graphic designer in Tampa. Noah, 16, is a high school sophomore. What did they feel? I asked. What did they remember?
Keith Jr.: “There was a sense of love and compassion for one another in the air. So many different types of people from all different backgrounds all in one place to support one man and his family. In stark contrast to today.”
Matt: “I have been told from a very young age that you can be whatever you want in life, but there were 43 white presidents telling me something a little different. Attending that first Obama inauguration, I got to see the beauty of America, but also the hate, because – especially in the South – people were angry about a black man achieving the highest office in our country. So it showed me that glass ceilings can be broken, but not without truly pissing some people off along the way.”
Noah: “There was a level of surrealism when we all sat there in the freezing cold, staring at the Jumbotron in the distance. There also seemed like a sense of hope that things would change, and that the world would start to heal after what had divided us.”
I sent Noah a follow-up text:
“That hope isn’t really there,” he wrote back. “I’m scared the progress we’ve made in 8 years will be reversed in 4.”
Hope. Everyone uses the word. It defines the experience of standing there among like-minded people, watching the relentless gears of democracy turn; your candidate with hand raised; this man in whom you’ve invested some dream, some ambition. Some hope.
These hopes I heard sounded like mine. None more than Leila Prelec of Medfield, Mass. She is an immigrant from Greece. She was there with 13-year-old Sergei Tourian, her adopted son from Russia. Trump had just delivered his first speech as president, a blistering account of the state of the union that must have left hope cowering in a rhetorical corner. But Prelec felt the hope so deeply that, no more than five words in, she was crying.
“Trump has made me feel like an American,” she told me as she dabbed her eyes. “The way he speaks is very unpolished. It’s of the earth. It sounds like me. He’s not an intellectual like Obama. … He’s never pretended to be anyone other than who he is.”
Prelec said she had studied at Harvard and Oxford, that she was turned off by Obama’s “post-Colonial feminism,” his globalism, his liberal values that seemed so anti-Christian. Clinton “was looking down on me,” she said. With Trump, she said, we get to say Merry Christmas again instead of the generic Happy Holidays. We can be who we are.
She had taken Sergei to get an autograph when candidate Trump visited Worcester, Mass. When she talked about the feeling of love in that crowd, she started crying again. “He’s a man of the people,” she said. “I was struck by how gentle he was.”
Reality check. I’ve seen the images and scenes from Trump rallies, and I imagine Leila and I wouldn’t have had to go far in Friday’s crowd to find the profane, vulgar, racist, xenophobic and homophobic folks I’d seen on YouTube. She had obviously thought a lot about that; about how those values conflicted with hers; how they threatened her son.
“It’s very interesting,” she said. “When I was in that crowd, I felt my own anger. [Trump] releases it. He lets us feel our feelings, which were being repressed. The bad stuff has to come out. We can’t blame Trump for that. He gave me permission to be myself. That’s why he’s a role model. He’s a flawed individual. I’m a flawed individual.”
Sergei, she said, will “survive the bad [in politics] by having me as a mother. I feel that love reigns in my heart. I can’t take that for granted, I know. Sometimes I’m tempted to get puffed up when I’m part of a mass of people like this and I feel like shouting something at the other side. But that doesn’t define me.
“I want to know: Where is common ground? How can I articulate the common ground.”
I don’t know. I don’t know.
We share so much in common, me and the people on the Mall, right down to that feeling of hope, the dreams we have for ourselves and our children, so potent and profound and emotionally imminent that even before you say the words you’re crying.
These were not partisans mouthing the un-interrogated rhetoric of a political campaign. They were just people living their lives and raising their kids. But they had also decided for my children a future that frightens me and dulls the hope of my 16-year-old son.
They spoke to me in codes that I can easily translate. Of “political correctness,” that euphemism for the burden of thought that comes with empathy, consideration and civility. They talked in transparent code about being extricated – finally! – from the tyranny of politicians who would love and protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender Americans; who would keep the country’s arms open to Muslims and Mexicans even as they know the threat of immigration abuses or terrorism; who would make a bold play to give health care to the least of us; who would defend a woman’s birthright to self-determination.
These fellow parents, fellow Americans, used words that I use – family, values, hope. They described perfectly the feeling I had when I stood there that day, four years ago, and held my sons close against the cold. But it was not my crowd.
Theirs was not my kind of pride. Not my definition of values.
Their hopes would undo my dreams.