6.30am on Monday morning, and the temperature was at freezing point. I had lost all feeling in my toes and my face was numb. One of thousands of volunteers at President Obama’s inauguration, I had been on the National Mall for two hours, shivering, hopping from foot to foot like a penguin, willing the sun to come up and give me the illusion of heat. The organisation of so many volunteers that morning had been a somewhat haphazard affair and I was, to be honest, a tiny bit fractious.
“I am just so goddamn happy to be here!“, exclaimed the woman, clutching a large American flag to her chest, smothering the Obama and Biden badges pinned to her coat. I pointed her towards the entrance.
“I can’t believe it! I’m here! I’M HERE TO SEE MY PRESIDENT!” She yelled the final words, tipping her head back and waving her flag skywards.
Imagine you are that woman. You have travelled for two days to get to your nation’s capital. You have shelled out to pay for an expensive hotel room you will barely spend time in. It’s cold and dark, and the only warm place within reach is a portaloo. The badges on your coat are the only things that are stopping your heart from bursting out of your chest.
Now replace the word ‘President’ with the words ‘Prime Minister’. Can you imagine feeling such utter joy at the prospect of witnessing your elected political leader take office?
A presidential inauguration may be what Tony Blair might like to call ‘the people’s coronation’, and of course the President of the United States is also the head of state and we have one of those too; indeed the sight of Obama and the First Lady dancing at the inaugural balls was not unlike the tradition from centuries past of the monarch eating dinner as hundreds of ordinary people filed past to gawp at him or her.
But what I saw on Monday morning was a different kind of patriotism, one owned and not bestowed. Fought for, not inherited. Perhaps layer upon layer of British history had made me blasé, arrogant even, about our political system. Perhaps my time spent working in the center of power had diluted the awe and wonder I should feel at a process so precious, so personal to millions across this country.
The tens of thousands of people who stood between me and the President on the National Mall couldn’t block my view of a country that retains a youthful exuberance and fierce pride in its elected leaders and the system that elevated them.
The woman with her flag and her badges – I didn’t catch her name – took my weary, cold cynicism and punched it in the face. And while my toes continued to burn in the dipping temperature and I eventually lost all feeling in my nose, I had a little glow for the rest of the day.