28 February 2013
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The route to the Americas curatorial team on floor 2 of the British Library is currently guarded by a 5 foot high sign indicating ‘Media Access’. A collection item on its way to accession, we’re lucky to have it. I wasn’t sure I would be able to haul it down the lamp-post on Constitution Avenue at all, and when I had it took a huge effort with my partner, Sarah’s pen-knife before it was fully liberated from its moorings. But Washington DC’s clean up team had been incredibly efficient, and a couple of days after the event we sighted only two from the hundreds of temporary President Obama second inaugural parade signs still languishing in place.
Parties of students swept past us in the gloomy evening light as they exited the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Federal office commuters headed for the Metro. We diligently sawed thick plastic straps with a wholly inadequate 1.5 inch blade, then joined the commuters on the subway, carrying the signs like a third presence between us. The following day the staff of United Airlines decided that it certainly could be classed as free hand baggage: “Did you really come over just for the inauguration? Would you have voted for him if you could have? We did.” High fives all round.
There had been a similar response at an Obama rally in Concord, New Hampshire on the Sunday before Election Day. A friend and I joined 14,000 other of the President’s closest acquaintances from the surrounding area and on a beautiful fall day the town’s central streets were filled. My friend, a supporter, but critical that Obama had not pursued a progressive agenda strongly enough, was chatting as we walked to the venue, ‘You have to be a bit disappointed, though,’ he said, ‘what makes you still sure that he has your vote?’ The woman he addressed stopped walking, locked eyes, gained his full attention, and said emphatically, ‘Love’. She was so emphatic I thought she might nut him.
The day before the inauguration Washington was a particularly happy and relaxed place. Inauguration-goers in their hundreds of thousands were arriving from all over the country and many of them wanted to scout the lie of the land before rising early to be in place for Monday’s ceremony. Eastern Market had more than its usual visitation of tourists for breakfast, and to browse the stalls. Around the Capitol we exchanged photograph taking opportunities with visitors from Illinois and Indiana. We had souvenirs pressed on us as gifts, “You are international? You must have this...’. Near the Washington Monument we were interviewed for a California schools project.
It was a crowd of enormous diversity, but with a common purpose, signed by many hats, shirts, buttons, balloons: to celebrate the second inauguration of the first African-American president of the USA. It may be that some in these crowds were very well aware that, regardless of policy outcomes, Obama’s second inauguration may be more important than his first. If the first non-white president had lasted only one term, what would be the message to major parties about nominating candidates outside the orthodox tradition of white men?
These were different Washington streets to those I used to walk when I lived here in 1972-4, the time of Nixon, ‘benign neglect’ of racial poverty, and the mistrustful atmosphere of Watergate. The sense of one family on the Mall in 2012 could never have been predicted 40 years earlier. Inauguration Day fell this year on Martin Luther King Day, and Obama’s second term began as the nation was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. When we reached the Lincoln Memorial we found thousands of others were making the same journey.
After the exhilaration of inauguration day Washington returned quickly to its usual business of politics. The news media spent a few days discussing President Obama’s second inaugural address, agreeing that it was as forthright a statement of a political agenda as this president had ever made. As after election day, when many Republicans were shell-shocked at the degree of the Obama victory, there was some indication of potential co-operation across party political lines.
Other Republican voices wanted no capitulation, but instead a regrouping to take advantage of Republican election potential in the 2014 and 2016 elections. While one senior Democrat did mention to me the possibility of ‘twenty-five years of Democratic dominance’, and some Republicans were bemoaning a party failure that might last into the future, I certainly don’t see this being inevitable. The strategy for the Republicans to have single party control of the executive and the legislature in 2016 is every bit as plausible as that for the Democrats. There is all to fight for, campaign lines are already being drawn, and campaign funds already being raised.
Meanwhile the Library has a few inaugural pieces to add to its small collection of US campaign posters and other items, helping keep alive an event that within a few days seemed remembered most for the question of whether Beyonce Knowles lip-synched or sang live the national anthem.
- a guest post by Prof. Philip Davies of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library