We tend to romanticize things we don’t see often or don’t see in person. For me, I usually create an image of people that transcends life and reality, and they become almost more than human.
At Monday’s inauguration, my illusion crumbled. For when the President raised his right hand and swore the oath of office, he didn’t look as tall, as iconic as I’d imagined. He was just there — a man with graying hair, with human flaws: one who felt a little wistful as he exited the stage for the last time, asking for a last look at the crowds; one whose daughter yawned during his swearing-in; one who lingered a little too long while kissing Beyoncé on the cheek.
Preparing to attend an inauguration invokes a special blend of emotions: patriotism, hope, the expectation of pomp and circumstance. But now, having attended, I look back and I realize that inaugurations aren’t the prettiest of occasions. They’re not grandiose moments of national vision. It is cold, the chairs are small and the program is not without its flaws.
This year, headlining the flaws department was the crazy man on the tree.
For those of you unfamiliar, on early Monday morning, a man named Rives Grogan climbed up on a tree in front of the Capitol and refused to leave. He had a circular shield that read, “Pray to End Abortion.” I arrived at the ceremony around 9:30 a.m., and he had already been perched on the tallest branch for quite a while. The fire department and the Capitol Police tried to reach him but couldn’t reasonably do so, and they let him be. And so throughout the ceremony, from the benediction to the address itself, he loudly espoused his anti-abortion rhetoric, angering the spectators below him.
Now, Grogan is someone who has rejected civil dialogue. To be completely honest, I think he’s obnoxious, and pretty silly — I wish for the sake of everyone near him that the police had successfully dragged him down. I could still hear him clearly, and I was more than halfway between him and the President. In fact, I’m quite certain that his words reached the politicians on the inaugural platform itself. The man had a penetrating voice.
But if you ask me whether I would want to redo the inauguration without its imperfections — without Grogan’s little tree shenanigan and without Obama’s human flaws — I don’t think I would say yes. In a way, it really completes the ceremony.
Because in a sense, these imperfections underscore what the relationship between Citizen and President should be. Grogan may have been obscenely rude, but he is part of this country. The mere fact that the words of a regular protestor could reach the nation’s assembled leaders on the inaugural platform — that is astounding to me. In most other countries, he would have been immediately tazed or beaten right away.
The fact that citizens can come together to watch their leader swear an oath to them, a leader crowned for only four years by none other than the citizens themselves — that limit on power too, is remarkable.
That citizens can consider their own leader as human, as their equal, and physically see that he’s not so different from the rest of us — that is a phenomenon that very few countries can claim. Even today many peoples around the world consider their leader semi-divine, godlike, and that makes them passive objects, not creators of their own national destiny.
After all, I can hardly imagine a more humbling moment for the President than having to endure attacks on his abortion policies from a man in a tree during his inauguration.
That people even care enough to drop what they are doing in order to join their fellow citizens on a freezing Monday morning to celebrate and contribute to their democracy — that too is very special.
Perhaps the best part of the inauguration was when Obama was forced to take one last glance at the National Mall, and said, “I am not going to see this again.”
Indeed, he will not — and that is a beautiful thing.
The inauguration is the ultimate exercise in humility — for we break free of the glamorized version of the president and see him for who he is: merely a man, constrained by the wishes of his citizens.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .