By Lil Buie, 1993
Here are some thoughts on the inaugural experience, an essay to share with those dear to me who will be around longer and have more of a chance to put our idealism into practice. See what history has to say about the expectations I express here.
Although television is a much better vehicle for detail, I found being in Washington for President Clinton’s inaugural to be thrilling. There was an electricity of hope, unity and caring that seemed to emanate from the mobs. Sunday’s “American Reunion” on the mall was for me the highlight of the week. Everybody seemed so happy. No shoving, no flare of temper, no fear of being crushed by the crowds, just joy at being there and sharing it with other Americans of diverse experience and gender, age, color, ethnicity, faith, class – humanity at its best, in the image of our creator.
We were running on Clinton time and there was no way we were going to meet Ann at Air and Space Museum at 2:30, just as there was no way the concert was going to start promptly at at three, so how great it was to run smack into teach other just as Ann resigned herself to enjoy the gala on her own. No way could the ten of us stay together but how easy it was to feel at one with the strangers all around us. I think I enjoyed the reactions of the people around me to the music of different eras and to the timeless words of the past as much as I enjoyed my own emotions. It was a hugging time. Kids everywhere – I think almost every group had several. Yet there was no whining on the part of little ones and no parental threats of smacks, no complaining about the cold and the mud and the difficulty of seeing over tall heads or over kids on shoulders. The huge screen which brought the celebrities close to the participants was a wonderful idea and made us feel very much a part of it all, from the opening lines by Oprah Winfrey on “A Lincoln Portrait,” aided by Jack Nicholson, to the words of Carl Sandburg’s “The People Yes” and Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
Most of us were saying the lines of the Declaration of Independence along with the leaders. Robert Kennedy Jr.’s feelings about his uncle’s inauguration in 1960 brought memories of the triumphs and tragedies of the 1960s, as did quotations from Martin Luther King, but they also renewed the hopes and idealism of that period. Linda Battle’s beautiful soprano made “We Shall Overcome” a part of everyone’s goals and hearts. It was inspirational to hear Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and others sing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and of course I enjoyed Kenny Rogers and songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Stand By Me,” “God Bless America,” and Tony Bennett’s “When Will the Bells Ring for Me” just before the Clintons on the bridge rang the Liberty Bell sounding for the entire country.
There is no way real fireworks can be appreciated on television. I’ve never seen such a thrilling display, and nothing could have torn Ann and me away until the end. The entire sky was a splash of bright stars, first forming a huge saxophone, and at the end the word, “HOPE” formed against a fading blue sky. As we sloshed in the mud with mobs heading for an overcrowded metro, I think everyone was believing in that special place. It was lovely to end the day with the wonderful dinner prepared by Lucia in Takoma Park, for three generations, and especially nice that Jim and his two Carolina roommates and their families could be together.
The whole experience was for me a spiritual one. We were in crowds of whites, blacks, native Americans, Asians and Hispanics of many backgrounds, with everyone offering to give seats to older people or to hold someone else’s youngster. Mary Odom and I got VIP treatment from every black person we met, it seemed, whether at the cafeteria in Union station, at the metro, in the lobby of the Ramada Renaissance, or on the Capitol grounds. We began to wonder if it were our Southern accent, more than our age.
Maya Angelou’s poem and delivery were deeply moving. “America’s problem is not expecting enough of ourselves, when we strive beyond what seems possible, unless then we do stretch toward God.”
I give Clinton’s speech an A, based on brevity, his call for sacrifice on the part of all of us, and the feeling of good will toward all and the belief in our future. I noted one minor grammatical error – compound subject with a singular verb – only an English teacher’s concern. His metaphor to “force the spring” carried through well. His quote from Galatians was well-chosen, and including those of us “young in spirit,” though the emphasis was on the emergence to power of a new generation – nice for me to hear. “There’s nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what’s right with America,” he said. He called for more opportunity for all, coupled by more responsibility assumed by all. He “feels the pain and sees the promise of America.” “But for fate, we the fortunate and those the unfortunate might have been each other.” After mentioning the trumpet call, he said that “each in our own way, and with God’s help, we must answer the call.”