On January 20, 2009, I was watching President Obama’s inaugural address wedged against the front window of Washington’s historic Old Ebbit Grill. We were at a private parade watching party that, like the rest of the city at that time, was stuffed to capacity.
I quickly staked a spot by the window to get a view when the President exited his motorcade, as past Presidents had done, before walking the final block to Pennsylvania Avenue. I ceded some of my coveted space to an African-American member of the Memphis City Council and his wife. Soon, there was no space and we were all wedged against each other, but happily so rather than braving the artic air of the fifth coldest inaugural in history.
As Obama spoke, the city councilman’s wife asked “can I ask you a personal question.” I joked that her husband was right in front of us before saying “sure.” She asked, “is this a big deal for white people?” I was surprised by the question, but I pointed at all the people, white and black, who fought back tears with mixed success. “This is a big deal for all Americans,” I stressed.
Indeed it was. I remember my own naive hope that America had shed the chains of its past and was now in a post-racial era. I quickly realized that was a false hope.
Shortly after taking office, I began a web-radio show in which I was teamed with a conservative pundit for political banter with a sense of humor. We had some success during the campaign, but after losing to Obama, Republicans were down right humorless and determined to break him. Nothing made this clearer than Congressman Joe Wilson’s shouting “You Lie!” during the President’s address to Congress on health care.
By the fall, I quit the radio show during a live broadcast after responding to the latest smear that the Obama administration was “full of collectivists” since one of his staff quoted Mao in a commencement address (something Republicans from John McCain to Newt Gingrich had also been guilty of). I now have my own show on internet law and policy – Cyber Law & Business Report.
Eight years later, I am proud of what President Obama accomplished (see Yes We Can: The Obama Record), although there will always be debate about what could have been achieved. I am disappointed, however, in the ugliness that found license in his victory and that has now propelled his successor to victory.
It was a proud moment to be able to say eight years ago, “this is a very big deal” for white Americans; and it is also profoundly sad to realize that is all today’s inaugural will be.