The King Coalition inauguration celebration at Monona Terrace quickly reaches overflow capacity in the auditorium and fills a second meeting room with well bundled Madisonians wanting to watch the inauguration in the company of others: Retirees, mothers with young children, downtown workers, students. Why do you want to be here today? It isn't the free cake or the coffee. It isn't really the big screens. It's something less tangible even than wanting to invoke the word "community" in the name Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
Outside, two men hold a banner urging that the U.S. not let Afghanistan turn into another Iraq. "Tell Obama to get us out of Afghanistan," they urge those passing by. But in general, the main messages being sent outdoors and in are smiles. "Isn't it a beautiful day?" beams a woman, a total stranger, whom I pass on my way in. Mayor Cieslewicz, standing in the rear of the Monona Terrace auditorium wearing an Obama button, agrees: "It's an excellent day."
With the overflow room's big-screen tuned to CNN and the auditorium's tuned to ABC, both crowds alternate between a quiet expectancy and cheering for, well, pretty much everybody who comes onscreen. Applause and cheers for Sasha and Malia and their grandmother, applause for Aretha. Cheers and a standing ovation for Michelle Obama. Unstinting applause at the first appearance of Barack Obama.
Hilarity ripples through the assembled as Vice President Dick Cheney is wheeled out, looking like Old Man Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. There are a few hisses and a muttered exclamation of "jail term" -- but overall the room seems ready to good naturedly accept the cosmic justice of the situation. On the other hand, hissing -- prolonged hissing -- greets Pastor Rick Warren, whose prayer seems to initiate some cheering in Washington, judging from the TV audio. But not at Mo T.; the Madison audience remains unmoved.
Cheers when ABC shows the crowds watching the inauguration in Kenya. More cheers for Aretha, big cheers for Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma. ABC catches a shot of Bush 43 looking like Bush 43 has so frequently looked: like a frat boy uncomfortable in his interview suit. The black humor of this image capture is not lost on the Madison crowd, and it generates titters of derisive laughter.
"The Moment," as CNN has been calling it, comes with people hugging, cheering, not a few tears and lots of filming of the big screen with digital cameras just as if it were the live event itself.
The inaugural speech generates more applause -- for Obama's deeming the financial crisis "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age"; for his call that "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America"; for "We will restore science to its rightful place."
But it's 87-year-old civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery's closing prayer that steals the show, rousing the traditional African American call-and-response from the audience, bringing forth shouts of "That's right!" and "Amen."
Lowery echoes the closing words of the Lord's Prayer, "Deliver us from evil." In all the years I have heard this phrase, at church services, at weddings and wakes and funerals, it has never meant anything to me until this moment. In this room, right here, right now, it does seem that we have been delivered from evil.
Lowery's soulful conclusion, "We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right" brings down the house one final time, and people begin to disperse. Most of the cake is gone. Outside, the sun is still shining. The Afghanistan banner is gone. People are heading back to work -- "the work of remaking America."