Watching History On The Big Screen

So much of this country’s history has been watched on television — lunar landing, Beatles on Sullivan, Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” from Joe Montana in the 1982 NFC Championship Game (had to throw that in) — that I didn’t feel bad in the least that I watched Barack Obama’s swearing-in and subsequent Inaugural Address on a giant big screen.

OK, maybe I felt a tinge of regret by not being there. But return Amtrak tickets were sold out, and it was going to be mobbed, anyway. At least that’s what I told myself as a means of self comfort.

Nonetheless, “being there” in this case, is more than simply a geographic term. I wasn’t in DC, but I was “there”: only “there” for me and my family was at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, NJ, where the city’s public-private development agency hosted a party, a unified gathering spot to witness history.

It worked. It was like we were there.

I was pleasantly surprised that I could just walk into a ballroom with hundreds of people and fill my plate with food. I was also pleasantly surprised by the free giveaways — buttons featuring Shepard Fairey’s version of the Obama countenance that read “I celebrated ‘A New Birth of Freedom’ with my friends in New Brunswick; President Barack Obama; 01.20.09.” But what I found the most exciting was the interaction. The crowd was “there” — it wasn’t just me.

We all stood when we were asked to stand, we all applauded when the new president said something we liked, no one booed when pastor Rick Warren gave the invocation (several local church groups were in attendance), people were silent when George W. Bush was on-screen. It was joyful, but it was also solemn. Obama was solemn. No one let the joy of this particular moment overshadow the challenges that this country faces, challenges that, of course, stretch far beyond the farthest reaches of the National Mall.

I’m reminded of the The Inauguration Show episode of This American Life, that described a pre-taped Barack Obama speech at the opening session of an international conference on global warming in Los Angeles. Obama had just been elected two weeks before, TAL’s Ira Glass reported, and expectations of the speech were low. People were thankful Obama had recorded a speech, but thought it would basically deliver rote formalities.

After Gov. Schwarzenegger introduced the recorded version of the president-elect, people applauded and people started to listen. Particularly Lucia Green-Weiskel, who attended the conference with the Chinese delegation while promoting low carbon policies in China.

“When I heard him come on, it was really shocking, because I had been listening really carefully throughout the entire campaign about his position on climate change, and, frankly, hadn’t heard a whole lot of very specific commitments…but then all of a sudden he started saying that.

Obama, in the video, remarked that “few challenges facing America, and the world are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute, and the facts are clear.”

“It was pretty emotional. It was stunning,” Green-Weiskel said.

The promise of a new administration, new leadership, leaped off the screen, as it did across the country on January 20.

Even most of the people who were actually “there” with tickets, in the cold, soaking in what must have been a breathtakingly patriotic event (standing on the National Mall is always a moving experience), were watching on big screens set up for the event. That shared experience is comforting. Everybody was watching in any way they could.

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