‘I watch breathless as the 44th President of America takes his oath…but I shiver, and it’s not just the arctic wind’

Duncan Wu takes a British view of Obama Day

January 20, 2009

Georgetown is eerily quiet. It’s Obama Day. Having won the election in November last year, Barack Obama is finally going to take office. The bridges from Virginia have been closed to all but pedestrians, the main arterial roads in town are shut, and there are empty car spaces everywhere. I walk with my colleague, the poet David Gewanter, and his family, over to the National Mall where, along with two million other people, we’re to bear witness to the pageantry of the Republic, beamed to us on the giant television screens stationed under the Washington Monument.


The elements are behaving themselves. The sun shines brightly down on us, a small consolation for the biting winds that have frozen the Potomac. As we stroll, we’re aware that, as in some carefully choreographed film, we’re being joined by more and more people. The walk along the riverbank, past the Watergate and the Kennedy Center, and up to the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, takes only 15 minutes or so; by the time we reach it, we’re part of a huge mob. The steps of the Memorial are packed full of countless thousands who have assembled to watch one of the 20 or so JumboTrons positioned at strategic angles along the Mall. We walk along the Reflecting Pool towards the Washington Monument, that overgrown obelisk I think of as a permanent challenge to al-Qaeda.

Along the Mall we see almost as many volunteers, armed policemen, and soldiers as we do members of the public. The Poll Tax riots in central London come vividly to mind. On that occasion it was painfully evident that the authorities were powerless. I remember the sickening sound of bricks crashing through the window of Macaris in Charing Cross Road, and the hordes of looters who pulled saxophones from the wreckage before disappearing into the rabbit warrens of Soho. And the mounted policemen, chasing demonstrators into Tottenham Court Road. These memories recur only because, like so much else in America, this event is so strictly regimented as to underline the constant anxiety that everything might culminate in some unspeakable act of violence. I’m not the only one to have this thought; Joy, David’s wife, turns to me and expresses the hope that no one will assassinate Obama. For days, citizens of the nation’s capital have been used to the fact that a large chunk of land round the White House has been closed to everyone: Obama and his family are in town and under constant guard. A life lived under such conditions must be unbearable.

But this morning the atmosphere is good-natured. As we walk down the Mall, giant speakers relay to us the sound of the children’s choir singing the national anthem on the steps of the Capitol, and it’s impossible not to share in the hope and goodwill that accompanies the first black Presidency in this country’s history. By the time we arrive on the mound beneath the obelisk, you can see tears in people's eyes, and it isn’t just the bitter wind blowing in their faces. If one’s only point of reference were those around us, one could easily imagine that all America felt this way. But that’s not so. Rick, an old friend of mine who lives in his home town of Decatur, Illinois, has just phoned to tell me his wife was laid off yesterday from her job as accountant at a local engineering firm. Last Friday alone, 100,000 Americans were made redundant; that’s 100,000 families who have lost their principal means of income.

I watch breathless as the 44th President of America takes his oath, wondering how long this sense of hope can last, however attenuated it may be. That it exists at all is a kind of emotional levitation – a resistance to the realities that have brought hardship to the lives of many Americans to a degree not experienced in decades. Two nights ago, at a dinner party thrown by a friend who attended this morning’s inauguration, I spoke these thoughts out loud, to be greeted by a chorus of voices affirming that America would not lose its faith in Obama. Such views are easy to hold if you’re relatively well-off and in secure employment. There are many, particularly in the Midwest where Rick lives, who never had that faith. Nor do they see much reason for acquiring it. The end of George W. Bush’s Presidency is cause for worldwide celebration, but I wonder how long Obama’s honeymoon will last, and what will follow it. I shiver – and it isn’t just the arctic wind.

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