First, let’s just take a moment to let it sink in: Barack Obama is president of the United States. Hell. Yeah.
I trekked down to DC on Saturday and stayed with my lovely little sister in Columbia Heights. At her house. Because people in DC have houses, and pay half the rent that I pay for my tiny fifth-floor walk-up pre-war apartment in New York, and I can’t get over that.
Anyway. I took Amtrak down with my friend Shannon, which took five hours instead of the usual three because we were behind the Obama train for most of the way. We finally passed him in Wilmington, Delaware — everyone on my train was glued to the windows to get a glimpse of the blue Obama coach, and thousands of people were lined up near the tracks for about a mile down, waving American flags and Obama signs, just to get a look at the president-elect’s train go by.
We finally got into DC, marvelled at their lovely metro — no one pushes! everyone lets people out of the cars before they try to get in! there’s carpet! the seats are padded! reader boards tell you what time the next train is coming! it doesn’t smell like pee! — and headed out to my sister’s place. We took it pretty easy Saturday night; we had dinner at a great pizza place and then hit up Kay Steiger’s birthday party (happy birthday, Kay!).
It was pretty fantastic — I knew women had made major gains in this election, but until I heard so many of them speak, I hadn’t realized just how much we achieved. The event included U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Sen. Jean Shaheen (NH), Senator Kay Hagan (NC), Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI), Gov. Bev Purdue (NC), White House Communications Director Ellen Moran, EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Among the highlights:
Hearing Hilda Solis speak and feeling almost giddy that the U.S. Secretary of Labor is not only a ground-breaking Latina woman (the first Hispanic woman to serve in the California State Senate), but that she cut her teeth in environmental and labor movements and has promoted a truly progressive vision of environmental and economic justice, immigrant rights, and labor rights (and, as Gwen Moore pointed out in her into of Solis, the new Labor Secretary has also been a staunch women’s rights and anti-domestic violence advocate). Feeling like we’re finally headed in the right direction as Ellen Malcolm expertly steered even the most loyal of Clinton supporters to cheer — roar, even — for Barack Obama, reminding everyone that 8 million more women than men voted for Obama in November, and that while women still have a long road ahead of us, this victory is one we’re celebrating. Watching Hilda Solis take the stage and terrorist fist-jab Gwen Moore. Listening as Jean Shaheen, whose senate campaign I volunteered for way back in 2002, was introduced as the first woman in U.S. history to be elected as both a governor and U.S. senator. Realizing the importance of a group like EMILY’s List when Nancy Pelosi pointed out that we now have a record 13 pro-choice Democratic women in the Senate, and that the 2008 election alone brought 2 new pro-choice Democratic female senators, 2 new pro-choice Democratic female governors, and 12 new pro-choice Democratic Congresswomen. Cheering my head off when EMILY’s List President Ellen R. Malcolm referenced the West Wing episode where Toby Ziegler tells C.J. Cregg that the president admired the work she did “at that girl’s group with the stupid name;” Malcolm then noted that in Obama’s West Wing, C.J. has Toby’s job, and introduced a video of the West Wing theme song and intro, with the real Obama administration replacing the West Wing cast (and how sweet it was to see names like Susan Rice, Hilda Solis, Hillary Clinton, Lisa Jackson, and Janet Napolitano). And watching the crowd go nuts when a belatedly-arrived Hillary Clinton finally made it (especially since the new Hillary Clinton is looking a lot like the old feminist one):
The press pen at EMILY’s List was also packed with feminist writers. I sat between Megan Carpentier and Rebecca Traister, two of my favorite feminist journalists (Rebecca has a great recap of the event here, and Megan recaps here). Rita Henley-Jensen, the founder of Women’s eNews and my former boss, was sitting a few rows back. And Citizen Jane was right behind me. It was an exceptional crowd, and despite the fact that the press doesn’t get lunch, I think I had the best seat in the house.
Hillary Clinton’s speech was especially moving. Hopefully someone got a video of it, but she immediately launched into discussing international women’s rights, and this new administration’s obligation to pursue feminist goals around the world — and not just as a cover for war. She transitioned immediately from thanking her supporters into a call to move forward, and to support not only female politicians, but women everywhere. “For me, those 18 million cracks are very personal,” she said. “But as I look at women about the world, that glass ceiling is poverty that limits their dreams; hunger that eats at their stomachs; diseases that shorten their lives; and repression that limits their futures.” She continued, “When women are vulnerable to economic, political and social marginalization, the potential for advancing democracy, prosperity and security is also vulnerable.” (quotes from Megan and Rebecca).
After the luncheon I met up with my friends Shannon and Kate, and we played tourist for a little bit. When we passed a Krispy Kreme, I told Kate she should ask for a free abortion donut. Since she’s shameless, she did. And despite my hatred of donuts, I actually entered Krispy Kreme just to see it all go down. The conversation went something like this:
Kate: Hi. Can I have a free abortion donut please?
Krispy Kreme Dude: Uh… a what?
Kate: A free abortion donut. I heard you were giving them out.
Krispy Kreme Dude: Abortion donuts?
Kate: Yeah. For the inauguration. Free abortion donuts.
Krispy Kreme Dude: Abortion donuts? Did you have an abortion?
Kate: No. But I think if I did, I would probably want a donut.
Krispy Kreme Dude: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
At which point I jumped in and explained the back story. We all had a good laugh, Kate paid for her abortion donut, Shannon made a thoroughly inappropriate joke about jelly filling, and I was extra nerdy by quoting a truly amazing Feministe troll on the Abortion Donuts thread:
I hope all you horrible liberals choke on your fetus fritters, and terrorist twists. It’s a sad day in America when dognuts are used as weapons of mass destruction.
You evil evil liberals!
Yes, folks, that is a real comment. I still haven’t figured out how dog nuts are used as weapons as mass destruction. Maybe you throw them?
Monday was brunch at Cafe Atlantico (highly recommended if you’re ever in DC) followed by a blogger meeting with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. Richards sat down with Vanessa Valenti, Lindsay Beyerstein, Emily Douglas, Todd Beeton, Deanna Zandt, Miriam Zoila Perez, Kay Steiger and myself to discuss Planned Parenthood’s agenda, strategy and hopes under this new administration. She had a lot of interesting things to say, but the most salient point she made is that we need to figure out how to be on the offensive. She talked about how when her mother, the late great Ann Richards, was elected as governor of Texas, they spent a lot of time in the beginning trying to get past the go-to defense mentality — they were so unaccustomed to having any real power that when they finally got it, they were still in combat mode.
The argument that we need to be on the offensive when we’ve got the ball struck me as particularly wise, not just for Planned Parenthood’s strategy, but as advice for the Obama administration. It’s an argument that I’ve heard a lot of progressive bloggers make, but one that the DC insiders who work on the Hill seem to miss completely. So it was nice to hear Cecile make it, and to be assured that Planned Parenthood is optimistic and forward-thinking. It was also refreshing to hear about Planned Parenthood’s agenda, and to realize that in this administration, we may actually be talking about health care, science and solutions that work instead of ideology and fringe interests. Richards said that Planned Parenthood is primarily focused on three issues: Making sure that women’s health care is included in the scope of health care generally, and that women’s health care needs aren’t politicized or marginalized (Richards phrased it as a need to “normalize women’s health”); over-turning the Global Gag Rule; and restoring comprehensive sexual health education to our schools. Basic stuff, and widely supported by the American public — and finally, supported by our President.
Richards also threw out some telling numbers about the importance of Planned Parenthood in women’s lives: 1 in 4 American women will visit Planned Parenthood in her lifetime; 15 million people visit Planned Parenthood’s website every year for sexual health information and clinic referrals; and 97 percent of the services Planned Parenthood provides are preventative services and not abortion. Planned Parenthood has also been seeing an increase in young men visiting their clinics for health care. And we have all kinds of reasons to be optimistic: the Obama administration has been reaching out to Planned Parenthood and other progressive organizations, and has been appointing people who are actually experts in their fields instead of cronies or unqualified idealogues (how sad is it when that’s unusual?). I asked Richards about what she thinks the role of grassroots activists will be in the coming administration, particularly given the fact that the Obama administration has been trying to gain political capital by reaching out to some of the same-old right-wing leaders. Her answer was perfect: “Let’s not just wait to be disappointed. Let’s get out there and make things happen.”
A million thanks to Vanessa for organizing that meeting, and for the invite.
Monday night was the Netroots Nation party, co-sponsored by a bunch of blogs. I went with Deanna, and ran into some of my favorite bloggers, including Cheryl Contee (aka Jill Tubman) from Jack & Jill Politics. The highlight of the night, though, was meeting Howard Dean, who apparently requested a ticket because he loves the bloggers and the Netroots. I was so excited that I asked him if I could give him a hug. He said yes. After Netroots was the Progressive Democrats of America party; you can see video here. And then to bed, because I’m not the spring chicken I once was.
Tuesday, of course, was the Big Day. My fantastic little sister scored me an inauguration ticket — all the way back in the “silver” seating section, but a ticket nonetheless. I took the metro in, and made the mistake of getting off at L’Enfant Plaza — where I ended up waiting to get out, smashed in a huge crowd, for almost two hours. Under less exciting circumstances, I suspect there would have been a riot, since metro officials, police officers and the National Guard literally locked us in the metro station and only let a few people out at a time. People were passing out, there was not an extra inch of space, and a 68-year-old woman fell onto the train tracks (she survived, luckily). DC apparently loves its escalators, and part of the problem is that they were getting over-loaded and shut down. Instead of just turning them off, having people walk up them like stairs, and directing people with disabilities to the elevators — which would have been the halfway intelligent thing to do — guards would block off the broken ones and try to repair them. Which meant that we were stuck in the metro even longer.
But despite the crowding, everyone was pretty upbeat, alternating between chanting “O-Bam-A!” and “Let Us Out!” We finally saw the light of day, and hiked over to the Mall… where we waited in an even bigger crowd. It was pretty fantastic, though, to see how many people had turned up just for this. My favorite was a group being interviewed by a news team, holding a sign that listed their respective countries of origin: Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Togo. They had come to DC just for this.
Waiting in the line to get into the inauguration took another hour and a half, until someone climbed up a fence to get a bird’s-eye view of how to get onto the mall, and directed some of us to follow her. I went, and was through security and on the mall a few minutes later — too far to see much, and eventually squished in with my view of the jumbo-tron blocked by various stocking caps and hoods, but surrounded by an upbeat and enthusiastic crowd. We watched the various big name politicians and celebrities filter in, and I was endlessly entertained by who was cheered and who was jeered. John McCain: Restrained cheering. George W. Bush: Laughs, boos, and a rendition of “Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye.” Sasha and Malia: HUGE cheers, and a collective “Awww.” Joe Lieberman: The loudest boos of all of ’em. When Hillary Clinton came on, I listened to the woman next to me explain to her young son who Clinton is: “She also ran for president, and now she’s Secretary of State, which is a really important position.” I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that when that little boy looks on stage and identifies the most powerful people in the country, he sees Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — and he sees a president who looks a little bit more like him.
Despite all the hold-ups, I managed to get to the mall on time (the benefit of leaving the house before 7am). I also managed to freeze, despite wearing three pairs of pants (not even kidding), four shirts, a hat, an ear-cover thingy, boots and gloves. I honestly expected my toes to turn black and fall off. As Rick Warren gave his boring invocation, I was seriously debating the wisdom of watching the inauguration live instead of on TV at a bar.
Then Aretha Franklin took the stage.
As you can imagine, that distracted me from the cold.
After Joe Biden’s swearing in and a gorgeous performance by Yo-Yo Ma, it was finally Obama’s turn. His actual swearing-in was less anticipated than the speech that followed it, and I didn’t notice the stumbling. But I did find his speech surprising — masterful and important, but not what I expected. I thought the tone would be more celebratory; and while it certainly wasn’t negative by any stretch, it was realistic in its assessment of our current situation and the challenges we face. After eight years of being patted on the head and told that our mission has been accomplished and everything is fine — even as we all watched the foundation cracking and the walls crumbling — it was unnerving to have a politician actually face the facts, treat his audience with respect, and lay out a vision not of head-in-the-sand divorce from reality, but optimism bolstered by hard work and determination to make things right.
It was also refreshing to hear him speak to the world, and not just to Americans — and to speak to those abroad in a way that was welcoming and inclusive, instead of threatening. That he was able to tie in the American values of civil liberties — the fact that we’re finally hearing that civil liberties are American values — with internationalism and human rights for all was one of my favorite aspects of his speech:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.
Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.
And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.
He continued by emphasizing that America’s diversity is its strength, and that we will assume a role as a resonsible leader instead of a punitive bully:
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.
And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.
And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
And there was his conclusion, which finally pushed me to tears:
So let us mark this day in remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled.
In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.
The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.
At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
It’s not a speech that’s going to be anthologized as one of the Greats. But it was by any measure a great speech, and I was damn lucky to hear it live. I don’t imagine that’s something I’ll ever forget.
The Benediction, given by the Reverend Richard Lowery, followed, and if you haven’t watched it you should (transcript is here):
Then it was a mad rush to get off the mall and back home — which took three hours. Have I mentioned that DC seemed less than prepared to handle this?
Tuesday night is when all the big inaugural balls happen, and my fabulous friend Luther managed to score me a ticket to the Youth Ball. We ended up not getting into the room with Kanye and the Obamas — sad, I know — but it was a great time nonetheless. And how good did our new President and First Lady look? Damn.
Inaugural balls in DC are sort of like prom, and I was the fool who showed up looking all business-casual in a boring black dress (stolen from my sister). In four years I’ll do better.
On the cab ride home, my driver was blasting this song.
I slept for a few hours, woke up at 4, and called a cab to take me to the station to catch my 5:30 train back to New York (the DC metro apparently closes at 2 and doesn’t open until 5, much to my annoyance). Unfortunately, the cab never showed up and I couldn’t get one on the street, so I missed my train — which meant missing a day of work, and threatened to interfere with Wednesday’s LOST premiere. I finally made it to the train station only to be told that there wouldn’t be another seat open for 7 hours. So I hiked to the Greyhound station, waited in line for an hour and a half (waiting in line was a big theme this weekend) because, despite the fact that it was inauguration weekend and everyone in their right mind knew that it was going to be super busy, Greyhound apparently only had two employees working. Because, you know, it’s not like the million-plus people who traveled to DC for the inauguration are going to want to leave at any point.
But Greyhound, crappy cab service, inept Metro operators and insanely large crowds aside, the weekend was a blast. As Holly pointed out, there is something to be said for a president who inspires so many people — who makes so many of us want to be smarter, work harder, and achieve higher.
And I know Obama himself is careful about mentioning the race issue, but it is pretty damned inspiring to be in a crowd of people and recognize that for a lot of Americans, this is the first president who looks kinda like them. This is the first president who actually represents the promise that being elected President of the United States is a possibility for all Americans.
Barack Obama is not a perfect man. He is not a perfect liberal. He’s going to disappoint us. So this isn’t a call to back him 100% no matter what, or to refrain from criticism or to stay silent when he is complicit in injustice.
But from one cynic to what I suspect are a lot of others, this is a call to put it aside for just a minute to embrace the gravity of what we’ve done here.
Barack Hussein Obama is the President of the United States of America.
Cecile Richards’ comment keeps ringing in my ears: “Let’s not just wait to be disappointed. Let’s get out there and make things happen.” I was talking to one of the many people who work on the Hill at the Youth Ball on Tuesday, and we started debating Obama’s strategy. He’s a white guy from a Southern state who works for a prominent Congressman, and he said that he hopes Obama waits to deal with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell until next year, or maybe the year after, because he needs to “build political capital” (a phrase I am already thoroughly tired of hearing). Repealing DADT in the first 100 days, he insisted, would be disatrous.
To me, that illustrates exactly what’s wrong with the Beltway insider mindset, at least among Democrats. We are so very used to waiting our turn, and to throwing minority groups under the bus if it can help mainstream Democratic interests inch even a tiny bit forward, that we fail to notice when the ball is in our court. We fail to realize that winning an election in a landslide and controlling both houses of Congress is some damn serious political capital — and we earned it.
I’m not saying that we should purposely slap around conservative Americans or spit in the faces of the moderates who also helped elect Obama; of course we shouldn’t. Unity is crucial, not only for the ever-present “political capital-building” and not only for successfully promoting a progressive agenda, but for challenging the assumptions and biases of so many Americans, and maybe getting a few more to realize that hey, this whole progressive thing might be in their interests. A politics of divisiveness only makes people dig their heels in and put earmuffs on; a politics that’s inclusive, respectful and forward-thinking may actually succeed in getting people to put aside some of their fears and their fall-back retrograde beliefs, and may allow those engulfed in a conservative world the space to feel out something new. That matters, and I’m impressed with President Obama’s ability to create that space and to welcome everyone into his vision for America.
But part of that plan also has to include pushing a progressive agenda, especially on issues where the public is largely on board. I get the feeling that those enmeshed in the Beltway — or in the blogosphere, for that matter — have a slightly skewed vision of what “the rest of America” thinks and believes. We’ve essentially taken the extreme right’s word for it when they claim that they speak for conservatives, moderates, religious people, and Republicans, and we’ve allowed them to frame the political discourse so crookedly that we actually believe that things like contraception access and comprehensive sex ed are controversial in “the rest of America.”
They aren’t. And neither is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — according to a recent CNN poll, 81% of Americans favor ending it. Only 17 percent of Americans believe that openly gay people should not be allowed to serve in the military, which is roughly the same number who believe that the sun revolves around the earth. If Obama got Colin Powell on board, put together a group of generals who support overturning DADT, threw out some basic figures on, say, how many Arabic translators and qualified soldiers have been kicked out of the armed forces because of the policy, and made this about national security and supporting the troops, it would be cake. There would be some squealing from the right, but I’m not sure this is a battle they even care all that much about anymore. The world is very different from when Clinton took office a decade and a half ago, especially when it comes to LGBT rights — now marriage is the battle ground, civil unions are the moderate position, and quibbling about DADT feels overwhelmingly silly.
I’ve digressed a bit, but Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is a pretty good illustration of the Democratic comfort with playing defense, and our skittishness with actually making change. I saw a million people in DC who are itching for progress. Today, we’re all watching a new president make some of those changes — he’s closing lawless prison camps, cracking down on torture, and curbing executive power. These are immensely important decisions, and they signal the presence of an administration that has its moral compass pointed in the right direction, and that will make the right decision if it feels that decision is politically viable.
So let’s make sure that President Obama knows just how much political capital he has. Tell Obama to overturn the Global Gag Rule (rumor has it he’s going to do it today or tomorrow, but we will see). Tell him to overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Let’s not just wait to be disappointed. Let’s get out there and make things happen.
(More photos here).
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