Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Essay: Alone in the Belly of the American Beast

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Author's Note: The following was written in the days after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which took place one year ago today.

We Are One. That is the title—and presumable theme—of the free concert held at Lincoln Memorial two days before the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. The list of musicians scheduled to perform spans genre, culture, and generation: Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, and Sheryl Crow are just a few of the featured stars. The start time is pegged at 2:30 pm, but the morning newspaper advises arriving closer to 8 am, when the gates will first open. I decide to chance it—not least because the same newspaper predicts an afternoon temperature of 25 degrees—and head down to the National Mall just after noon.

I have no map, but it isn’t difficult after I exit the Metro to discern which way to go. A human stream, decked out in Obama headbands and beanies, sweatshirts and scarves, flows toward the Capitol.

Twenty minutes later, I reach the edge of the Mall. The people converge onto the winter-yellowed grass from every conceivable direction, Let It Shine blaring from the giant speakers, an image of an American flag fluttering over the giant screens. The Washington Monument, staggeringly tall, juts skyward in the distance. The sky is like marble—layers of blue and gray and then blue again.

As I near the Memorial, a line begins to form—more of a sprawling mass than any kind of organized procession. Our shepherds alternate from civilian volunteers crowned with red beanies to police officers wearing blue uniforms to military personnel clad in camouflage; the irony is that no one seems to be in charge. We stall, start, then stall again. Around me, the crowd radiates a low-key, affable acceptance. I hear the guy next to me say to his girlfriend, his voice betraying the faintest hint of hope, “Maybe there’ll be a stampede.”

The gridlock offers me the opportunity to pause, to look around. The people here are myriad in every sense of the word, their skin tones ranging from dark brown to near-translucent, their ages spanning from infancy to the elderly, their styles of clothing varying from the bright and the jarring to the mundane and unobtrusive. For me, considering such human disorder is nearly painful, like staring into the sun. Or perhaps the opposite of that.

Instead, I concentrate on a row of trees clustered beyond the far fence. Scraggly and leafless, the branches seem to strain upward towards the marbled sky. I find something reassuring in the trees, something vulnerable and appealing, as though the branches’ desire, usually hidden behind the cover of canopy, has for a moment been laid bare, and by nothing more uncommon than the changing of season. I have just a few minutes to admire them before we begin to move again. We make it a dozen yards down the path before the line halts—just far enough that we are out of sight of the trees.

After another hour and a half, I reach the security checkpoint. A military man in a green uniform glances at my cell phone, gives me a cursory pat down, and lets me through.

Inside, the lines for refreshments stretch from tent to fence, spanning a space of several hundred feet, and extend another hundred feet in the perpendicular direction besides. I push through, joining up with one of the arterials snaking through the a mostly stationary crowd. We move up the left side of the reflecting pool at a crawl. Farther ahead, people have scaled the wall of port o’ potties, their legs dangling precariously over the sides.

The first person to take the stage—visible on a massive screen suspended just to the right of the Memorial—is a bespectacled man clad in red vest and black blazer. A roar surges in the crowd. The man, I will learn later, is Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopalian priest Obama has invited to perform the invocation for the event. He was picked, presumably, to diffuse criticism of Obama’s choice for the following day: Rick Warren, the conservative Californian mega-preacher.

But as Robinson’s lips move on screen, the only sound is the rustling of the crowd. People begin to shake their fingers, chanting, “Speakers, speakers!"

Meanwhile, the gay priest is talking but no one can hear him.

When he’s finished, Denzel Washington takes the stage, and this is what it’s really like to hear half a million people shout.

“Denzel, that's my baby!” crows a woman from behind me, banging her hands together along with everyone else.

“On this day,” Denzel begins, “we are inspired by this man who we elected President.”

The crowd thunders.

“As Obama has said all along, this is not about him, this is about you,” he continues. “We salute you.”

Again, the crowd roars. This time, however, I am left feeling a mite uneasy.

Who, Denzel, is this we you speak of, and who is this you?

There is no time to dwell on this point, however, because soon Bruce Springsteen is crooning a mellow version of The Rising. (Maybe a little too mellow, the woman behind me muttering, “Okay, that's enough las.”) And then there’s Laura Linney, the actress from Mystic River and Love Actually, opining on the legacy of FDR, and Martin Luther King III saying some things about his father, and Mary J. Blige performing a powerful cover of "Lean on Me" (made all the more poignant because there are people actually leaning on me).

Then, bizarrely, the guy who played the 40-year old virgin takes the stage. After him, there’s Kumar from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and Forrest Gump intoning about Abraham Lincoln, horns groaning behind him. (“What is this, Saving Private Ryan,” shouts a guy in front of me.) And on it goes, this parade of beautiful, famous, well-dressed people singing the praises of America. Jack Black on Teddy Roosevelt, Tiger Woods on the importance of military values, Marisa Tomei on the enduring virtues of the American family.

But through it all I can’t get Denzel’s words out of my head. His inadvertent distinction between those on stage and those in the crowd; the glaring dissonance between that message and the putative message of the concert. As Jack Black expresses his love for sequoia trees, and Kumar celebrates the strands that bind us, and Bono shimmies around the stage, exerting the entire force of his outsized personality into the words let freedom ring, never before has Obama's rhetoric of unity and service sounded so phony—so trivialized, so conventionally political. Even when Obama himself takes the stage to deliver what is in essence his standard stump speech—there isn't a black America or a white America...but a United States of America—he manages to accomplish only a limited kind of damage control.

At the end of the concert, a military man brings out a bald eagle clinging to a stick. The eagle beats its wings furiously, without going anywhere.


With a day to kill until the Inauguration, I spend an afternoon at the National Gallery viewing a photography exhibition that commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Frank's, “The Americans.” Frank’s vision of 1950s America was unfashionably bleak. Almost without exception, the people in these photographs look lonely, isolated, and cut off from one another.

Turning to a placard on the wall, I read that Frank's work “implies that the American political system drowns out the voice of its average citizens; that Americans worship false icons, such as cowboys and movie stars; that their work is restrictive and unsatisfactory; and that their rich are arrogant, their poor meek, and their middle class lulled into quiet submission by a consumer culture.”

Leaving the Gallery, I find myself imagining what our contemporary brand of loneliness might look like. Even after the election of Barack Obama, weren't we fundamentally the same people we were two months ago, two years ago, even—in certain important ways—fifty years ago? A nation of lonely people parked in front of our screens, worshipping movie stars, lulled into submission?

An afternoon spent among Obama’s America had left me feeling not filled with fraternal fellowship, but quiet and solitary, as though I were one of the people in Frank’s street shots of New York or New Orleans. Alone in a crowd of tentative good will—optimistic, partially, but subdued, still.


On the morning of the Inauguration, I rise at eight, a time excruciating in its earliness but positively tardy compared to friends of mine with tickets who left at four to beat the rush. Ticketless myself, I am resigned to watching Obama’s speech from the middle of the Mall. I head that way a little before nine.

The cold on this morning is a kind of cold that gnaws at any and every bit of exposed flesh; the kind of cold your central nervous system perceives, correctly, to be a mortal threat. By my estimate, it is three hundred times colder than it was two days ago at the Concert.

Vendors purveying all sorts of Obama gear line the sidewalks. I stop to speak with one of them, a baby-faced kid in a yellow vest selling Obama pins. I learn that his name is Robert, that he is 19, that he is from Springfield, Illinois, and that he has been following Obama for the last nine months, selling pins. He hit the road, he says, just after he was laid off from his job installing air-conditioning and heating systems. He's saving the money he makes to pay for tech school in Springfield. 

I ask him how he feels about Obama.

“Let me put it this way," he says, sounding a lot older than he looks. "If I can make more money off the guy who's running for President than I can off the guy who's President now? Well, I think [Obama’s] pretty good.”


As I near the Mall, the crowd begins to thicken. There is no empty space on this day, no vantage point from which to regard the converging masses. There are simply people, and then more of them.

I kill the next few hours wandering in the vicinity of the Washington Monument. It is so cold that I can barely grasp my pen. Like an idiot, I have forgotten to wear gloves. I might be the only person in a crowd of two million without them.

I kill a long twenty minutes in the refreshment line. Under any other circumstances the coffee would taste terrible, but it is delicious now simply by virtue being warm. I splash a little liquid on my hands; it helps some.

I give a few minutes to a man standing on a bench, growling unintelligibly into a megaphone while women scurry around in front of him distributing a free newspaper called “Revolution.” The cover story is critical of Obama. The headline reads, “Uncle Sam Wants You,” only “Sam” has been crossed out and replaced with “Bam.” In front of the Washington Monument itself, a group is protesting the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The activists are dressed in orange jumpsuits, black bags draped over their heads. They stand silently behind a man orating to a small crowd of twenty or thirty people. The tone he strikes is only slightly more conciliatory than his counterpart over at Revolution.

Mostly, for the next hour and a half, I wander the circumference of the Mall, trying to stay warm. The energy of the crowd seems more restrained than it did two days ago, neither outwardly ebullient, nor obviously somber. If there is hope among these people, it is a quiet hope, a hope sealed somewhere inside.

When it comes time for Obama to speak, I am not ready for it, so preoccupied have I been with movement, with warmth. While Rick Warren booms loud and clear over the speakers, I scramble to find a space in front of the screens.

Then Obama takes the stage.

Obama, with whom we have invested our manifold hopes and dreams.

"O—ba—ma, O—ba—ma," goes the chant from the crowd, but it is coming from somewhere else. Around me the people are scrupulous in their silence, waiting for their leader to speak.

"My fellow citizens," he begins, and an involuntary cry leaps from my throat. For a moment, I am embarrassed, chastened by the somberness that surrounds me.

For the next however long, we listen, in silence, to our president sing. And for as long as this song lasts, it doesn’t matter that the deck is stacked against him, and us; that at the end of the day we will return to our lonely, buzzing screens. In this moment, he is so clearly the best of us, and his people, the people pressing against me, behold him with a silence that speaks louder than the highest pitch of their voices, and for as long as his song lasts, I am warm in the belly of this American beast, listening to our president sing.

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