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The Things I'll Miss Most On An Inauguration Day Unlike Any Other

Wednesday's inauguration, coming two weeks to the day after the insurrection on the Capitol, will be unlike any other in living memory, writes NPR's Michel Martin. Above, the Capitol building is seen as workers prepare for the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama in 2013.
Wednesday's inauguration, coming two weeks to the day after the insurrection on the Capitol, will be unlike any other in living memory, writes NPR's Michel Martin. Above, the Capitol building is seen as workers prepare for the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama in 2013.

I was thinking about the inauguration this week. I've been a journalist a long time, which means I've been to more inaugurations than I can count. And I'm talking about the gamut — I'm talking county council to president. I'm talking boxed Pepperidge Farm cookie and coffee-urn affairs where you mix and mingle with the newly elected official's mom, to the not quite front-row tickets within arms length of famous people events, complete with fancy party invitations.

What I think about most, though, apart from being hungry and cold — because it's always cold here in Washington, D.C. in January and I'm always hungry — is the crowds. They're usually so happy — happy to be there, happy to be part of history, happy for the country, happy to have a story to tell their kids or future kids even.

Often the people I've met at these things honestly didn't seem to care that much about who had won the election — they just appreciated the occasion. I think I've met more social studies and history teachers at inaugurations than I have anywhere else. And forget that classroom decorum — they do as much hooting and hollering as anybody else when the camera lights are on and it's time for that classic crowd shot.

And yes, 12 years ago was different. At President Obama's first inauguration, there was an electricity and emotion which is hard to describe, but which I feel confident in saying most people there felt. Everywhere you looked, people were laughing and crying and hugging and praying. Giddy is the word that comes to mind.

"The U.S. Capitol right now is a fortress, a place that must, seemingly of necessity, seal itself off from its own citizens, at least some of them ... How long is this going to last? Who knows? I just know that these fences, these barricades, are the hallmarks of a country at war, and most tragically, at war with itself."

Security was tight then too — let's not forget Obama was assigned Secret Service protection earlier than any previous major candidate. And yet, it was a remarkable day, a day where all different kinds of people, from all walks of life celebrated together.

And yes, four years ago it was different still. I wasn't out on the lawn or National Mall that day as I have been most years — I had a different assignment — but colleagues, especially colleagues of color, it has to be said, caught a very different vibe, one that was far less about the moment and far more about the man at the center of it all.

President-elect Biden's inauguration on Wednesday is also going to be different in another way — in a way that seems necessary and yet still feels wrong. Many streets are already blocked off by tall fencing or police cars. The U.S. Capitol right now is a fortress, a place that must, seemingly of necessity, seal itself off from its own citizens, at least some of them. How many of them? Who really knows? How long is this going to last? Who knows? I just know that these fences, these barricades, are the hallmarks of a country at war, and most tragically, at war with itself.

One time, a few years ago, I complained to one of my colleagues — one of the swells who got to sit up in the booth offering his insights while I was out there freezing my you know what off. I asked him, "How come I'm always outside on the Mall while you get to be inside?" He said, and I quote, "Oh that's easy. That's because you still like people."

Well, I still like people, for the most part anyway, but I'm going to be inside this year helping to guide you through the day with my NPR colleagues. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope you'll join us. But I have to admit it, I will miss being outside, I will miss the crowds, but most of all I will miss that feeling, however illusory it was, that at least for a moment, at least for a few hours, we are all in it together. Maybe next time.

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