A double shot of culture at the 57th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

If you wanted to watch the inauguration in Washington, D.C., on Monday, some of the best places to be were near the swearing-in area, along Pennsylvania Avenue where the president and Michelle Obama might have decided to step out of their limousine and walk for a while, at home on your couch (with preferred snacks and beverages), or at the Embassy of Canada at 501 Penn.

Canadian mittens

A pair of mittens handed out at the Canadian Embassy during the 2013 U.S. Presidential Inauguration. Photo by Barbara Miller

I have never trekked downtown to watch the inauguration and parade in person before — in my 20 years of residence in the nation’s capital. But this year, a friend and colleague at GW received an invitation to attend the “tailgate party” at the Embassy of Canada, and he was allowed to bring a friend. Bob Maguire, a professor in the Elliott School, is the friend.

I got a double shot of culture: Canadian and American, all in one day.

Getting there was a short story in itself. Bob and I each live north of downtown, in different directions. Our original plan was to take the Metro, meet at Judiciary Square, and then walk to the embassy from there. Wisely, Bob suggested a change of plans: We would meet in my neighborhood in northwest D.C. and take public transportation to the Judiciary Square Metro stop. It turns out, that was a great idea; otherwise, we might never have met up.

The bus trip went well as did the subway segment. Who knew: friendly people on the red line! Conversations! The usual daily commute felt more like being part of a competitive sport.

During the commute, I asked Bob, who got his Ph.D. at McGill University and therefore has some direct Canadian experience, what we might expect at the tailgate party in terms of typical Canadian food and snacks. “Maybe bison,” he said, although he explained that bison might be reserved for a fancier occasion. He went on to explain that we could likely encounter Beaver Tails, poutine, and Mae Wests.

Beaver Tails are akin to what Americans might encounter at a state fair as fried dough, but it turns out that Beaver Tails are several gourmet steps up from most fried dough I have had. And there is a variety called the Obama Beaver Tail.

Poutine is french fries with a kind of clotted cheese (like feta only blander) and hot brown gravy. It was served in Dixie cups, and people snacked on it throughout the day. The main course on offer was either a hamburger (likely not a bison burger) or a hot dog on bun. There were no Mae Wests — apparently kind of like a double Twinkie consumed with a Pepsi on the side.

Back to the arrival: In getting into the secured area, we made a couple of strategic errors, standing in a line or two that we didn’t need to be in (see slideshow below). But eventually we found our way to the security line leading to the embassy, and we whizzed through with no problem to find that we were being gifted with a pair of really warm mittens. What a welcome!

Around 11 a.m., when — with warm hands and a happy feeling to be at such a nice party — we lined up for the competition to win a new Blackberry device. But you had to successfully complete a quiz about Canada. Lucky for us, the kind Canadians provided a tutorial in advance. Do you know how many checkpoints there are between Canada and the U.S.?

My colleague, Bob, is full of information. He quickly passed his test with an 80 percent. Thanks to my tailgating style (help from a friend), I did even better, but don’t ask me to take the test again, because the sports questions especially will bring me down.

The ceremony started at 11:30 and was displayed on big screens. We were outdoors — others were inside watching from lounge chairs. Tailgaters lined up for hot drinks (spiked and unspiked) and Canadian beer (and it’s called that: Canadian), or my favorite, the white wine called Guilty Men (as they all should be), and other more serious beverages such as Bloody Caesars and maple-flavored whiskey that is served after being run through an ice sculpture to chill it (only the very brave were asking for the whiskey that early).

Then: President Obama’s speech which we watched on the big screen. Then Gary Doer, the ambassador from Canada to the U.S., appeared and commented on the importance of Canada-U.S. relations. He was followed by John Baird (see slideshow), who gave further encouraging words about Canada-U.S. relations.

Inauguration events then took a pause until the procession started somewhat after 3:30 p.m. At the tailgate party, it was a time to explore the Beaver Tails, lunch buffet, and open bar. According to my observations, the line for the Beaver Tails was consistently the longest line throughout the afternoon until the party shut down around 6 p.m. I cannot think of a sweet food item for which Americans would stand in line for so long at a public event.

The procession: The high point for most of the attendees on the mall and at the tailgate party was the pass-by of the presidential limo. Those who had a view snapped a picture from their fancy camera or iPhone. People started streaming away from Pennsylvania Avenue near the embassy by the hundreds, as soon as the president had moved on. What did they see? The President’s limousine appears early in the procession. He needs to get to the reviewing area, at the end of the line, so that he can review the other participants as they come through.

I have to say that I didn’t see the president, but a freelance photographer next to me with a powerful telephoto lens did.

What I saw was, first, a lot of media vehicles and then a lot more vehicles, all black and large, some with flags. They moved through. If you knew what you were looking for, you would know which large black vehicle carried President Obama and Michelle Obama. Then they were gone, followed by a lot more large black vehicles in phalanx, including, at some point, an ambulance. A lot of large black SUV-type vehicles. More like a funeral than a celebration. That’s the securitization of parades, I guess.

After that, the view from the edge of the embassy was much less affected by people jockeying for position, since so many people had left. On came all the marching bands and military units. I wondered how they had managed to stay warm while waiting their turn. I mused on the order of the participants — as I recall, Wyoming was given a lead position in the parade. Good idea to start with a red state.

The parade was an impressive amalgam of social inclusiveness, likely far more widely inclusive than any inaugural procession before in U.S. history, with groups representing African Americans, American Indians, Latinos, wives, gays and lesbians, and more. One marching band had a player who was in a wheel chair.

I believe, however, that the only animals represented were horses, so perhaps there is something to think about in this area in the future. I would support participation of working animals, especially dogs, and especially dogs who work in national security and who help people who are sight-impaired.

But don’t try cats. Some animals just can’t be represented in parades.

Reflection: Conversations with people watching the parade revealed that many come to the mall to watch the parade, because they care deeply about their roots and heritage. They want to be there to watch a support a particular group and what it represents, and to cheer them on. At one point, next to me, a man commented that he specifically came at this time in the later afternoon to watch the Dobyns-Bennett High School Band. He had been a member of that band when he was in high school. He had a lot of reason to be proud. It was an amazing band.

I have no expertise on parades, processions, and the culture of performance. Many cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and historians do. It’s an important area of study — understanding public statements of identity and purpose. This was my first in-person U.S. presidential inauguration. It was great to be there, and I am grateful to the Embassy of Canada for allowing me to watch this event at close hand. I have attended other parades, in my small home town in Geneva, New York, where as a child I thrilled to the big bass drums and was otherwise kind of bored. I have attended the massive Independence Day event in New Delhi, India, where folk dancers are interspersed with tanks and floats depicting military glory. Not to mention the flyovers.

This parade in January 2013 was punctuated by no flyovers. I saw no floats celebrating military might. The NASA float was a tribute to the importance of science and technology. But it was immediately followed by the awesome Dobyns-Bennett High School Band from Tennessee. The various branches of the U.S. military are a continuing motif throughout the parade, though. And the marching bands clearly conform to a military precision.

One reflection about parades, marching bands, and militarism, what are the chances of transforming that marching band glory, discipline, and energy into community volunteering and organizing?

In other words, marching for a different drummer?

Here’s the slideshow (to enlarge, first click on the arrow, and then click on the logo in the bottom right corner; to view captions, click on the images):

One Response to “A double shot of culture at the 57th U.S. Presidential Inauguration”

  1. Here’s to shifting standpoints and bringing “glory, discipline and energy” to community organizing. Now curious how the inauguration party went down in the Embassy of Mexico…

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