Presidential Inauguration: Witness to History

  • Published
  • By Scott Knuteson
  • Air University Public Affairs
I now know what is meant by a "sea of people."

Tuesday, standing with millions of others along the two mile long park known affectionately as "America's front yard," I tried to comprehend the enormity of the crowd surrounding me on the National Mall.

Members of the Boy and Girl Scouts of America roamed the Mall handing out small American flags. They soon became a flapping sea of red, white, and blue, as the crowd reacted to the first notes of music sung by a children's choir, marking the beginning of the ceremonies.

As we waited for our incoming president to accept the oath of office with his hand on the very Bible Abraham Lincoln used, I took in my surroundings. My eyes were overwhelmed with the vast expanse of people - seemingly endless to the east and west, in the directions of the Capitol and the monument to our first president, George Washington.

I was struck with a line found in Emma Lazarus' poem, inscribed on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty, hundreds of miles away in New York City's harbor.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..."

As I looked around, I tried to guess from where all these cold, huddled masses had come. How many in this crowd of nearly two million were first from their family to immigrate to the United States of America? How many had I brushed shoulders with who were formerly oppressed until they reached these shores? And how many around the world would watch this virtually seamless transfer of power, celebrated by so many, and want to join this crowd four years from now to celebrate the next president?

We decided to attend long before the election took place. No matter who wins or loses a U.S. presidential election, history is made every four years in this country, and my wife Ruth and I wanted to be part of it. Along with several close friends, we trekked nearly 1,000 miles by car to the nation's capital a few days in advance of Tuesday's main event.

We drove through the night Friday and decided to go straight to the National Mall, where we arrived as the sun was rising Saturday morning. Braving bitter cold - our vehicle's digital thermometer read as low as 17 degrees Fahrenheit - we piled out of the cramped comfort of the warm car and onto the grounds surrounding the Lincoln Memorial.

Scaffolding, stages, massive television screens and a friendly (but frosty) security guard, all in place for a kickoff event to be held the following day, kept us from ascending the steps to the feet of our 16th president.

Still, we snapped a few photos and wandered over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial a few hundred feet away. Here, frozen in time (or maybe by the cold), a dozen or so soldiers in full combat gear hunch toward an unseen destination. We pondered the service of those memorialized here and at the Vietnam Veteran's Wall nearby.

As the sky grew increasingly brighter, we hopped back in the car and headed toward the subway station, our primary means of transportation for the remainder of our time in the capital city.

For the next three days, we took a whirlwind tour of some of the major landmarks and historic venues throughout the capital, where scattered bits and piles of history greeted us at every turn. From the Declaration of Independence to a copy of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and a blood-stained shirt cuff from his assassination, we were reminded of the beginnings and travails of a nation bent on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Tuesday, we watched as the first African-American man took the helm of what is arguably the most powerful office in the world, the prospect of liberty and equality as envisioned by Abraham Lincoln and later by Martin Luther King Jr., seemed to come to fuller fruition than ever before.

Buoyed by these thoughts and the ideal of a nation free to elect anyone, I and millions of my fellow Americans, including our new executive, relished and absorbed the moment.

Congratulations, Mr. President. Welcome to history.