Monday, Jan. 19, 2009 | 10:51 a.m.
I hardly had any sleep lately. I stayed up far too late Saturday night writing about the Green Inaugural Ball and didn’t get to bed until the sun was nearly up.
What can I say? I suffer for my art.
Despite the lack of quality Z’s, however, when I awoke a few short hours later I felt totally refreshed and ready to go.
There’s something in the Washington air: an energy that is both invigorating and contagious.
I hopped out of bed, got ready and hopped into a cab.
“The Willard, please,” I told the driver.
The prestigious downtown D.C. hotel has been home to many politicians and stately affairs over the years. It has hosted the nation’s intellectual and political elite – President Lincoln stayed there the night before he was inaugurated.
Sunday morning, however, the Willard was the epicenter where dozens of Barack Obama’s former professors and classmates gathered. Harvard Law School, from which the president-elect graduated in 1991, toasted the alumnus with an elegant brunch reception in the hotel’s lower ballroom.
“HLS Celebrates the Obamas” was almost as exclusive as the prestigious law school itself.
It was an alumni-only event but I was able to get in because one of my best friends happened to graduate from HLS a few years back.
It quickly sold out and the wait list was rumored to run 500 names long.
Upon arriving at the Willard I was given a Harvard Law School lanyard with a nametag to wear. Everyone’s graduation year was printed under his or her name on the front of the nametag.
Well, almost everyone’s; mine was left blank.
Despite my lacking educational pedigree, I was treated to stories about the Obamas from the folks who knew – or still know – the soon-to-be presidential couple best: The dean of the law school (Solicitor General nominee Elena Kagan); a Chicago-based lawyer whose law firm hired a first-year law student named Barack Obama in the summer of 1989, (former FCC chairman, Newton Minow); and former HLS professors and classmates, too.
It was pretty cool.
After a few hours of fond memories and shoulder-rubbing, I made my exit and made my way to a very different inauguration weekend celebration.
I traded my pointy-toe heels for my bulky winter boots and hiked over to the Lincoln Memorial, where the huge “We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration" concert was about to take place … or at least I tried to.
I didn’t make it as far as the World War II Memorial before I hit wall-to-wall people.
The World War II memorial stands halfway between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The iconic Reflecting Pool lay between it and the stage.
I couldn’t see a thing.
The massive crowd hadn’t gathered for nothing: Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Beyoncé, Sheryl Crow, Usher, Garth Brooks, Stevie Wonder, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Herbie Hancock, Will.i.am, Shakira, Mary J. Blige, Josh Groban, John Legend, and James Taylor were all on the playbill. And admission, as it was, was free.
Thankfully organizers had erected several gigantic screens to display the onstage action. While I couldn’t see the stage myself, I was still able to watch as Will.i.am, Sheryl Crow and Herbie Hancock sang “Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright,” and Garth Brooks performed his ‘90’s hit, “We Shall be Free.”
Amanda Chawasky smiled as she stood still, listening.
“You’ve got all sorts of genres, you’ve got different age ranges,” she observed. “I feel like it’s really an inclusive concert and event which is … indicative of what Obama’s been trying to do all along,” she said.
Deirdre White was equally pleased with the scene, despite not being able to see the stage. Her 3-year-old daughter, Kyla, sat on her shoulders.
“It’s so important for my kids to see this moment in history,” the mother of three said. “We’ll be here on Tuesday, too, but I wanted them to see and feel and start catching the excitement.”
Further down the National Mall, hawkers were busy trying to sell Obama everything: Wine glass cozies, nail clippers, you name it. If you could embroider “Obama” onto it, or print the president-elect’s face on it, they were selling it.
A woman offered me an Obama scarf. I asked her how much it was.
“Just 20 dollars,” she said.
“OK, that’s how much it is today but I want to know how much you’ll be selling them for on Jan. 21,” I mused.
“Oh, now you’re trying to bargain with me,” she laughed.
I wasn’t, though; I already had a scarf and didn’t need another one. Yet I was still curious about her pricing structure. She never did answer the question.
The man selling the Obama wineglass cozies was charging $5 for his unconventional yet somehow sophisticated mementos.
They were selling like hotcakes.
I asked him how many he had sold so far.
“I’m not sure I can put a number on it,” he told me less than half an hour into the concert, at 3 p.m.
I asked him how much money he thought he’d make from the inaugural venture.
“Hopefully enough to pay for gas,” he said.
“I have a feeling you’re going to make more than enough to pay for gas,” I assured him.
He just smiled.
Later on, I tried to grab dinner at a restaurant in Georgetown.
The historic neighborhood is a popular spot most weekends, but inauguration weekend saw its roads transform into a multi-lane parking lot.
After moving no more than 3 feet in eight traffic light changes, I abandoned my cab and walked the remaining eight blocks to the restaurant.
Miraculously, the gracious and understanding hostess still managed to find me a seat, even though I missed my reservation by more than an hour.
Unsurprisingly, the restaurant was as packed – as was virtually every other eatery that I passed on my walk over. Still, the service was quick and the staff was energetic.
I’m not sure how the seemingly tireless team of servers did it; they never stopped. But even after a long day and several miles of walking, I realized I didn’t want to slow down, either.
Washington is full of political junkies and everyone’s on this intoxicating inaugural high. The buzz is both invigorating and contagious – and by the looks of it, no one is coming down until Tuesday’s inauguration ceremonies are over.