Walking around Washington D.C. on Monday felt like wandering through a dress rehearsal. The setting, a flag adorned Capital building, looked very much like a seat of political power, and looking at the podium overlooking the mall it was not hard to imagine the impressive view it would offer the following day. The props were in place, the bleachers, speakers, monitors, security fences, folding chairs, portable bathrooms, and all other special accommodations made for a slowly gathering crowd. Last minute details were being smoothed out, technicians clambered up and down fixing speakers, tinkering with the output and sound quality, newscasters were still buying for a space to set up their cameras, and somewhere on the mall Martin Luther King’s son talked to reporters surrounded by a circle of curious nobodies.
With everything in place but not yet enforced, people were free to walk around the grassy mall, getting as close to the capital as the enviable ticketed seating area that, I found, was not really so close. By the time I reached the mall it was early afternoon on a very gray day, and the inauguration choir was practicing somewhere high up on the steps of the capital. Their voices drifted down through the speakers toward clumps of visitors. Excitement and anticipation mingled with the sound of the music and the ambient chatter of those observing. The mixture of grass and happiness made us all behave like children at a track meet, we strolled the mall with foolish grins and a common confidence, feeling as though, for once, this place belonged to us. Looking around I guessed this was the most diverse inauguration the national mall had ever seen.
The grounds were missing the key elements, however, mainly Tuesdays cast and audience. There was no one to see or listen to, no crowd to wade through or escape from, thus it was a perfect time to photograph the space we would obliterate the following day. I was grateful for the afternoon of respite as it was an appropriate time to consider why we were there, and what it felt like to be there. As expected I felt conflicting emotions of hope and cynicism, belief and doubt, excitement and also a sense of how ridiculous this event could be. Inaugurations were not originally intended for “the people,” or even to be seen or heard by them, but we were making this change of office mean something. The mall, with “historical” monuments hedging it end to end, Lincoln to Washington, seemed to embody the most idealistic and the most manipulative strains of American thought and government. Sometimes, or this time, you have to give in to the former to be aware of the latter.