The only parallel in American history I can conjure for the sheer catharsis the nation witnessed last night--young people dancing in the streets in front of the White House, hundreds of thousands weeping in a Chicago park--is the famous story of Andrew Jackson's first inaugural, when an exultant mob thronged the Capitol steps after Jackson finished speaking, following him to the White House where they crashed the ball, dancing on couches, carrying off food, partying in the streets.
That night in 1829 remains a famous symbol of the Jacksonian transformation in American life. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing depended on where one stood on the social and political ladder.
Wrote Washington socialite Margaret Smith to a friend:
But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob. We came too late.....
This concourse had not been anticipated and therefore not provided against. Ladies and gentlemen, only had been expected at this Levee, not the people en masse. But it was the People's day, and the People's President and the People would rule.
The events of the next few years will determine whether or not Barack Obama is the kind of transformational force he clearly has deliberate ambitions of being. The moment is his. He asked for it, but no doubt the burden is awesome; and he certainly looked dour and lonely in a crowd last night.
In the end, as corny and Capra-esque as it may sound, the difference maker for Obama was hope--a simple shot at a better tomorrow for a people beginning to despair of that chance--hope, but also inspiration. Forget the money, forget the ground game, forget Iraq, forget the economy, Obama's his ability to instill confidence with his unflappability and his ability to appeal to people's inner aspirations are extremely rare traits even among leaders, and it was those qualities--the man himself, not the ideas, not the issues--that won the day.
But it was only this morning, after sleeping on last night contrasting images of the spontaneous jubilation of the people and the, frankly, grim and dour countenance of the object of their adulation--that I was struck by a stark contrast between inauguration day 1829 and election day 2008--90 linear feet of 10-foot high bulletproof glass.
In 1829, after Jackson was done speaking, the people mobbed the Capitol steps.
The south side of the Capitol was literally alive with the multitude, who stood ready to receive the hero and the multitude who attended him. . . When the speech was over, and the President made his parting bow, the barrier that had separated the people from him was broken down and they rushed up the steps all eager to shake hands with him. It was with difficulty he made his way through the Capitol and down the hill to the gateway that opens on the avenue. Here for a moment he was stopped. The living mass was impenetrable.
By contrast, there stood Obama, at his moment of triumph, orphaned, alone, barricaded. Credible threat, abundance of caution, standard operation procedure? I don't know--the Secret Service isn't big on revealing its intelligence or methods (though I have seen them prepare a building for the arrival of a Vice President and it's quite a lock down even without a crowd of 200,000 in an open space surrounded by skyscrapers). But in this stunning moment when Americans poured into the streets to share something profound with one another--something about hope, something about race, something about unity--Obama's solitude seemed profound.