In October 2008, my friends Dave and Mary booked a hotel room in Washington, D.C., because they wanted to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama. Wait, you say, the election was in November. Did they have inside information? Not really. Not anymore than the rest of us had at that time. We laughed about it at the time, actually. I told them that was a safe bet. You see, I pride myself on my political prognosticating. I’ve always had a knack for picking elections. I remember back in the early ’90s when Carol Moseley Braun was running for U.S. senate in Illinois. I was the only one in the newsroom at the time who predicted she would unseat the longtime incumbent and also beat out a multi-millionaire whose new, expensive hobby was politics. On election night, I recall some of my co-workers saying, “Man, I thought you were crazy. But she won!” I knew those other two politicians would split the vote, and Braun, the first black woman to be elected countywide in Illinois’ Cook County, would benefit. It was just math.
But by 2004, my prognosticating was all askew. I was used to old metrics that didn’t apply anymore in the age of the Internet. I was stunned when John Kerry jumped ahead of the pack in Iowa the weekend before the caucus and steamrolled to the nomination. And then I thought Kerry would beat Bush. I couldn’t have goofed things up more. My problem was the velocity and volume of information could change a politician’s trajectory almost immediately. Literally, one day you’re up, the next day you’re down.
So in 2008 I had a lot of pride on the line. Many of my friends depend on me to give them the inside dope — who’s going to win? And I couldn’t do it without one of my best friends — the best man at my wedding — Buck Wargo. He’s got one of the keenest political minds I’ve ever had the great joy to work with. He just really gets it. Often, when we hash out whether a campaign commercial, perceived gaffe or other moment will change the trajectory of a race, I am visited by some epiphany that would have eluded me if I pondered the question by myself. In 2008, Buck monitored a lot of the old media, while I kept a keen eye on the new media that had tripped me up so badly in 2004. As soon as I saw the Obama Girl video the first time in the summer of 2007 I knew he had a shot. Nothing suggests victory like a politician becoming a pop-culture phenomena. So by October 2008 when John McCain declared the fundamentals of the economy were strong even as markets around the world collapsed, dragged down by the Lehman Brothers implosion, I knew McCain had made a lethal mistake. So did my friends Dave and Mary. They invited me to join them at the Inauguration, and I laughed that it would be fun to cover such a historic story, but I didn’t think I’d be able to do it.
Then I got a call from a staffer for Rep, John Campbell, who offered me a ticket to the Inauguration. I gratefully accepted, but didn’t think I would go. I kept thinking, however, how fun it was to cover Obama’s fundraising trip to Newport Beach that summer. Eventually I would win an award for that piece, which, ironically, was about how I couldn’t get into the fundraiser, but two people who were evidently a lot more clever (and sneaky) than I got in without having to come up with all the green everyone else had to in order to meet the then-junior senator from Illinois.
I was also pessimistic because there were widespread reports at the time about a gigantic pilgrimage of Obama supporters headed to DC. Air fares were pricey and hotels were all booked up. So first I checked the air fares and was able to get a halfway decent, but still pretty expensive deal that involved about three or four stops from LA to Baltimore, where I would have to take about an hour’s drive to DC in a SuperShuttle, And, luckily, my friends had booked a hotel room, where I could crash with another friend of ours.
Then a terrifically talented co-worker at the time, Nathan Quach, upgraded my blog (he’s also responsible for the way it looks now), and I was set to cover the inauguration. I had to pay my own way, but it was a small price to pay, I thought, to cover an event so historic,. I figured I would never have an assignment this big again.
So after work the Friday before the inauguration, I drove down from Costa Mesa to LAX and got on a red-eye. I even bought a new winter coat, a hat and gloves for the trip. I wasn’t going to be one of those classically under-dressed Californians. I hadn’t been away from Chicago long enough to forget that bitter cold.
I knew optimism would run high in DC. The inauguration for any president is one huge party. It’s like homecoming, only your team is guaranteed to win — in fact, it already has. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the ebullience. I joked to my friends that it was like we were at a Bob Marley concert and everyone was smoking Obama. The president would never again enjoy that level of support.
Anyway, I enjoyed every second of my big assignment. There were many highlights. On Monday, the day before the inauguration, I went to Congress to interview several local representatives as they held open houses. While I was visiting with Rep. Campbell I got word that President Bush had commuted the prison sentences of two border patrol guards involved in the controversial shooting of a drug smuggler. Wow, I thought, a real news story. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and his staff were key to pushing for their freedom. I felt like a real Washington correspondent. I got back to the hotel that evening and after updating my blog I got to bed as soon as possible because I had to get up early to attend Obama’s swearing-in ceremony.
I dimly recall my friends coming back from the Chicago ball that night and Dave telling me excitedly that they saw former Ald. Dorothy Tillman. Despite straddling between dreaming and waking, I launched into a reverie about how former Mayor Harold Washington once said in a secretly recorded conversation that she had “nothing under that hat,” referring to her trademark head dress. Even I couldn’t believe what a political-junkie moment that was, so I made a self-deprecating wisecrack and drifted back to sleep, I got up early, put on my Sunday finest (with layers, of course) and slipped on my new winter coat. Later, I realized, how silly it was of me to dress up since it was so cold I would never open the coat and no one could see what I was wearing. Still, I thought, shouldn’t one dress up for the inauguration?
I walked to the event since our hotel was only about a mile away. That turned out to be extremely fortunate. I had a ticket to the purple section, and most of the people who had those got stuck in the “Purple Tunnel of Doom” and never saw President Obama being sworn in. The so-called tunnel was a reference to the subway platform, which got so jammed with people no one got up to ground and into the ceremony. I almost didn’t make it in either. I was stuck behind a wall of people slowly trickling into the seating area through metal detectors that were not equipped to handle a tidal wave of humanity. But I never gave up, despite standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other people for hours as ambulances worked to part through the crowd to pick up those of us who collapsed. Just before the swearing in, the gate keepers gave up on trying to screen every one of us and just let everyone through. It was like a running of the bulls in Barcelona. I had to scale a wall to get a view. But I made it. I was there to witness history.
And when it was finished I remember seeing Bush’s helicopter spirit the 43rd president away, with insults from the crowd in hot pursuit. I also remember buying a T-shirt souvenir for my brother, John, which he wore proudly. The T-shirt bore the faces of multiple civil rights leaders over the years. I remember coming across it after he passed away and it brought back the memories of the inauguration, just as they flood back to me now this weekend.
But I think the fondest memory I have of the weekend was the pep talk my friend Mary gave me in our hotel room that weekend. When I complained my blog traffic was so meager she scolded me when she realized I wasn’t on any social-media networking sites. I resisted, like a fool, and she convinced me to sign up for Facebook and other sites “just as an experiment.” My blog traffic doubled in one day. And it just kept climbing. Most importantly, however, my engagement with Facebook and blogging led me to a certain Mona Shah, the love of my life, who I would be married to just two years later.
P.S. For those of you wondering about my prognosticating this past year in the presidential race? Let’s just put it this way: It wasn’t easy, but a couple of weeks out from the election — when the media narrative was about a race too close to call — I told Buck that I was sure Obama would win Florida. He had Obama winning overall, but he wasn’t so sure he could win Florida, too, I’m no Nate Silver, but I did pretty good — with Buck’s help, of course.