There are people like me, who would have remained personally unthreatened by either administration, for whom January’s Inauguration Day was before anything else a breath of fresh air. It felt like permission to stop paying so much attention. And after the last month, much less the last four years, I’m anxious to talk about anything or anywhere besides Washington, D.C.
But as attention and pressure drift anywhere else, that’s exactly why I’m stuck in places I hadn’t remembered until photos of rioters storming them with weapons and souvenirs emerged nearly a month ago. I’m sure anyone who lives there could tell me different, but this is the first time in forever I can imagine D.C. the way I experienced it the last time I was there. I just wanted to share some of the stuff I remember.
Due to a series of last-minute changes, I ended up at the 2017 inauguration. It was an interim on the transition of presidential power—how arguably the most powerful single person on the planet hands all that off. Everyone else signed up when we were still expecting a woman to receive it for the first time.
We filled our days by exploiting the lasting connections of our professor, who also happened to be my dad, who also happened to have had a life and career in D.C. before I was born. We met Calvin grads working in cable news, law enforcement, think tanks, and nonprofits. We asked for wisdom, or at least predictions.
We visited NPR headquarters. We stood silently next to a PA barking cues in a control room as comforting but curt voices recorded Morning Edition’s opening montage from a soundproof booth. We watched the news get made neatly as it happened.
More than a dozen of us lived together in a big greystone house next to a bus line. At night, we played cards and watched The West Wing and National Treasure. Then, of course, we saw the Declaration of Independence, and it really is just like the movie. We took full advantage of most museums being free. We got totally soaked sprinting to the Library of Congress in the rain. We had a blast, even as our feet ached every night from working to see enough.
On the day we visited the Capitol building, we first ate lunch in its cafeteria. There, a cashier recognized my dad from twenty years ago, and he remembered her—Doris. When we met Representative Bill Huizenga in his office, he pointed to a map and showed how his district of representation wraps neatly around his and our alma mater to include my parents’ house, mine, and everything between there and Lake Michigan. He gave us a tour of the complex and dispensed fun bits of historical trivia.
Sheepish in our business dress, we all lay on the floor of the Capitol rotunda and gazed at the ceiling—the inside of the dome. I didn’t know there was a painting on it. In Renaissance style, it depicts, among many other things, George Washington lounging on a throne in heaven.
We sat in a circle in Huizenga’s office and he talked about the job. Someone in our group asked specifically how he’d come to favor the new president after gunning for nearly any other Republican candidate early on. He described how, eventually, sometimes you simply have to be a team player. He showed us tunnels and trap doors—artifacts from the War of 1812— past the vending machines, and we all laughed and marveled at all the history here.
These are places I wouldn’t see again, even in photos, until insurrectionists called the bluff made by Congressional Republicans attempting to exchange integrity for future job security by entertaining the president’s allegations.
Back then, we were to expect four years of temper tantrums, but we also knew the reality-show-host president was surrounded by career politicians. That felt safer. We’d investigated some of the invisible, bipartisan clockwork of checks and balances—we’d been shown D.C. to be a city of well-intentioned adults doing their best. I still trusted complacency and normalcy to win out hand-in-hand. Moreover, I trusted that to be a good thing.
I guess my title is misleading. The only thing I remember of the inauguration itself happened as I was leaving. There was a man wearing something like a poncho with a painting of the Virgin Mary printed across the front. I recognized it as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and printed on a plastic rain poncho, it recreated the tilma on which it originally appeared miraculously to Mexican peasant Juan Diego five hundred years ago, who became the first saint indigenous to the American continents.
Anyway, he looked me in the eye and said, “America is ours again.” I thought about “ours” and “again” and I really wish I felt scared or angry or threatened in that moment, but he looked just like me. I mostly just felt like we both looked silly.
Photo: The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi, Wikimedia Commons.