Saturday, January 17, 2009

Inauguration Madness

(Due to a variety of circumstances, I haven't written much on the web lately. But I have been thinking a lot about what to include in the following essay, an accumulation of readings and personal observations about Inauguration 2009. Settle in for an extended read. All emphases mine.)

Having lived here in the greater D.C. area all my life, I’ve seen twelve inaugurations come and go (1961 – 2005). Some local disruption is, of course, unavoidable for those of us living so close to the seat of federal power. But the upcoming inauguration of Barack Husssein Obama, “The One,” takes the prize for madness morphing into worship. Even the Big East basketball coaches are considering how much to accommodate Inauguration 2009:

..."Whenever you have a change of presidents, it's a special time," [Gerogetown Coach] Thompson said during a conference call with Big East coaches yesterday. "But this, as we start to welcome our 44th president, is a very special time here -- for me personally and for a lot of people."

And while Georgetown is the sole Big East school in the nation's capital, Thompson isn't the only coach who's weighing how to incorporate Tuesday's inauguration into the highly structured lives of his student-athletes....
Did Coach Thompson and his cohorts hold previous inaugurations in such high esteem? If so, I don't recall hearing so.

I first became aware of what has turned out to be absolute inauguration madness at the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, when Mr. AOW and I joined our neighbors for the feast. Before we had barely lifted our forks came the question: “So, how much are you asking to rent out your spare rooms for the week of the Inauguration?” The ensuing conversation, an animated one if not an outright battle of words complete with frenetic gestures, lasted well over two hours, long after we had finished dessert. “This Inauguration is unprecedented! George Bush is leaving office!” Silence fell, albeit briefly, when I mentioned that Bush would have been leaving office anyway.

Getting to the heart of the meaning of the word unprecedented proved difficult. I kept asking, “Why is it unprecedented?” I got no definitive reply even when I ventured, “Because Obama is black? Is that it?” The reaction was a firm negative. At the dinner table and on into the den on that Thanksgiving Day, I never did find out exactly why the supporters of “The One” felt that this 2009 Inauguration was so different – except for the predictions of 4,000,000 coming to town to celebrate. By the way, the large numbers haven’t materialized. After the first rhapsodic reaction to the election of "The One," D.C. area houses and rooms for rent on Craig’s list have gone begging, as have many tickets for the various inaugural balls:
"The question is, who's buying these tickets?" asked a D.C. event planner who didn't want to be identified because, hey, she wants to work again. "This giant gravy train everyone was expecting isn't coming."
In the run-up days to the festivities, we’ve seen unprecedented obsession for an event which our Founders foresaw as a time of gravity for the orderly changing of the executive branch of our federal govenment. Instead of such a dignified change, however, we've seen newspaper and television ads for a variety of Obama and Inauguration memorabilia. According to this article in the Canadian Press:
There are Barack Obama action figures, coffee mugs, puzzles, bobbleheads, T-shirts, posters, baseball caps, plaques and wrist watches.

Not enough? How about some shot glasses, beer mugs, colouring books, mints, commemorative plates, chocolate bars, paper dolls, coins and lapel pins...
In keeping with the mania and groveling at the feet of "The One," Giant Food, one of our largest grocery chains, is running a full-page ad with a banner announcing “Yes, We Can,” and is offering Presidential Platters, one of which has been dubbed the “West Wing Platter.” This particular platter was previously known as the “Wings of Plenty Platter.” Indeed, we've even heard about the possibility of shortages of milk and bread. Amazing!

We’ve also seen unprecedented security, including the closing of all the Virginia-side bridges into D.C. As Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher stated in his essay “A Celebration of Democracy Becomes an Orgy of Security,” a long read but with exactly the right details and tone:
Inauguration madness has hit a new and disturbing peak with the Secret Service's effort to turn Washington into Inauguration Island, cutting the District off from as much of the outside world as possible on Jan. 20.

Virginians will bear the brunt of the over-the-top restrictions, as every single Potomac River crossing inside the Capital Beltway is shut down to vehicular traffic for the entire day. They're not just closing the bridges to cars, they're even blockading the highways -- vast stretches of the GW Parkway and I-395 will be closed, along with a preposterously long list of other roads.

If Inauguration Day were some kind of holiday, the road closings would be awful enough -- another sign of a reckless security apparatus extending its elbows simply because it can. But in fact, that day is one on which many thousands of commuters must go to work, in addition to the hundreds of thousands who will attend inaugural festivities. The message from the authorities is, hey, take Metro, even as the very same officials warn that the transit system is almost certain to be wildly overrun.

Why cut off Virginians' access to Washington, but not Maryland's? What is so frightening about the bridges over the Potomac that is not true of the major bridges, avenues and highways that bring Maryland drivers in over the Anacostia River and along land routes from Montgomery and Prince George's counties? The issue cannot be proximity to the Mall and the federal enclave, because they're not shutting down only the Memorial, 14th Street and Teddy Roosevelt bridges, but also the Key and Chain bridges, which are farther from the District's core than are some of the bridges from Maryland.

I asked Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine whether the closings were a result of security or congestion concerns, and he said the issue was the gridlock that would result if, for example, people got terribly backed up and frustrated and even abandoned their vehicles on or near the bridges.

Later that day, the governor called back to clarify that security is indeed part of the rationale: "We're not closing them because of a worry about a bomb coming in or something like that so much. But there is a public safety component. We predicted that if we did not close the bridges, there would just be an immediate lockdown because of the congestion; it would just gridlock up. And then we would not be able to move emergency vehicles if there was some public safety emergency."

That is a legitimate concern, but couldn't the objective of keeping a path clear for emergency vehicles be met by reserving a lane entirely for official vehicles, or even closing just one bridge?

Virginians may be excused for wondering what it is they did to deserve this. After all, they just voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in 44 years, and what do they get for it? A virtual blockade.

But wait. Northern Virginians may not win the prize for most disrupted populace on Inauguration Day. Vast stretches of the District, including residential neighborhoods outside the federal core, have been declared bus-only zones. In places such as Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Capitol Hill and virtually all of Southwest, residents will be banned from parking on the streets where they live. What those residents are supposed to do with their cars is unknown.

Only a government obsessed with security and blind to the realities of city life could issue a plan like this. In a real city, one that is permitted to govern itself, the authorities would feel -- and bow to -- pressure from the people who need to be able to use their city.
Please note that closing the Virginia-side bridges also closes feasible access to many of the hospital facilities in D.C., particularly Georgetown University Hospital, typically accessed via Chain Bridge and Key Bridge, both of which are miles from the Capitol Building. Patients, critical and otherwise, will just have to make do as best they can. After all, “The One” must receive all accolades and worship.

I will be staying home on Inauguration Day – my classes for the day had to be canceled because of the expected gridlock on the roads of even the outer suburbs:
Emergency-planning officials have just three words for Northern Virginians who plan to head to the Mall, get to work, drive their cars or go anywhere on Inauguration Day: Make a Plan.
As of January 13, 2009, and by order of President Bush, our capital city is under a state of emergency:
President George W. Bush has declared an emergency in the District of Columbia that will let the nation's capital tap deeper into federal coffers for Barack Obama's inauguration.

Bush said Tuesday that an emergency exists and ordered federal aid to supplement the $15 million in federal funds already appropriated for the event.
Even cell-phone servers have emergency plans!
...[N]o doubt many of the estimated 2 million people expected to gather on the Mall will simultaneously hold their cellphones aloft to snap and send photos, call friends and family, and send text messages like, "omg, yes we did!"

But please don't, wireless network operators say.

For months, the carriers have been preparing for a predicted explosion of cellphone traffic during inauguration weekend as millions of visitors are expected to gather in the Washington area for festivities. Wireless operators say they plan to boost capacity at cell sites on the mall, along the Beltway and underground on Metro so that more calls can be placed at the same time. By the time Jan. 20 arrives, they will have spent millions of dollars to add staff for the event, rolled in extra cell towers on truck beds and expanded bandwidth on wired parts of their networks.

Even with those plans in place, they predict some hiccups.

"You can add hundreds of thousands of lanes to a highway, but if millions of people go for a drive at same time, you can still have a jam," said John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "There are just so many unknowns."

The preparations for mobile devices are as much of a priority for District inauguration planners as coordinating Metro rail and bus schedules and bringing in enough portable toilets. For Obama, who used the Web and text messaging to fuel his campaign success, it will be the first inauguration in which cellphones are as ubiquitous among youth and professionals as they are among boomers and soccer moms...
The least time I checked, the ratio of portable toilets to users was 5000 to 1, except for the VIP's, who will get trailers with flush toilets. How will the trucks used to service those toilets get into the District? Not from the Virginia side!

Meanwhile, the worshipers are even now gathering in hordes in Washington, D.C. On Sunday, January 18, the first of many special events, including a concert featuring U2, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, John Mellencamp, Usher, Shakira, Sheryl Crow, Josh Groban and James Taylor, with "The One" also scheduled to appear, will be given at the Lincoln Memorial; attendees have been advised to take their seats no later than 8:30 A.M. on what promises to be a record-cold day, even though the concert doesn't begin until 2:30 P.M. Indeed, rental cars are already milling around on our highways and byways, and cabbies are driving slowly and taking the long way around.

For the remainder of this 2009 Inauguration cycle, I'll stay on watch — from the comfort of my own home, of course. Will I watch Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office on January 20? Yes, on television. I'll even pray for him because Christians are so commanded. But I'll never trust him. He'll never be "The One" for me.

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posted by Always On Watch @ 1/17/2009 06:00:00 AM