Hope and change, snow and vodka

Seven years ago today, five of my Humber College journalism students were in Washington for Obama’s inauguration.

When they got back, they gathered in my home office for me to edit their copy.

As I recall, it was mostly self-indulgent crap, focusing on their drive from Toronto in a snowstorm, and getting lost on back roads in Pennsylvania.

No real reporting. Little on the inauguration and surrounding scene.

These were first-year post-grad students with only one semester of journalism under their belts. They’d been overwhelmed by the story.

I had to squeeze every scrap out of their memories and paltry notes. I began constructing a timeline, a diary, to highlight their recollections and reporting.

After hours of humiliation – theirs – beer, wine and vodka – mine – we managed to assemble a story for the next edition of their student newspaper.


Editor’s note: Et Cetera reporters Pattie Phillips, Stephanie Skenderis, Josh Kerr, Graeme Steel and Michael Sutherland-Shaw travelled to Washington for the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Here is their journal:

Sunday, Jan. 18

2:30 a.m. – We pile into Michael’s SUV. Before leaving, Pattie traces “Obama or bust” on the snow-covered back window.

5:10 a.m. – At Buffalo, we declare: “We’re on our way to the Obama inauguration.” The U.S. border guard waves us through with a smile.

2:30 p.m. – After nearly 12 hours of non-stop snow, the sun comes out in Maryland. We pass a convoy of U.S. army vehicles. With all the security promised, guess they’re going to the same place we are.

3:30 p.m. – Drive into Washington, pick up our press credentials for the inauguration and get our bearings before the big day.

7:30 p.m. – Check into the Super 8 in Indian Head, Md. (Pop. 3,422), about 50 kilometres from D.C. – $200 a night for a $75 room, including a view of two discarded crack pipes at a side entrance.

Monday, Jan. 19

11 a.m. – Meet Joel Westbrook, from Richmond, Va., who’s charging a buck apiece for people to pose for pictures with a life-sized, cardboard cutout of Obama. “Barack is putting a lot of people to work,” says Westbrook. “He’s putting me to work.” The ersatz president-elect is wearing a blue suit and smiling. “Why is he taller than me?” Michael grumbles.

1 p.m. – Arrive at the National Mall where we’ll join up to two million people tomorrow. It’s the holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday and we’re facing the Lincoln Memorial, where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Roderick Beechum, a black man from Baltimore, is euphoric. “They brought us here in chains,” he says. “But look at us now. We rise. We rise.”

Tuesday, Jan. 20: Inauguration Day

7:30 a.m. – Leave the motel, giving us four and a half hours until Obama takes the oath. A 20-minute drive – listening to a radio station calling itself Obama FM – is followed by 20 minutes in a packed subway car and 45 minutes flowing with the crowd to the mall.

9 a.m. – Find a spot beneath the Washington Monument. Meet Obama enthusiasts from all over the world: Miles and Giles from London, Alex from West Virginia, Ida Boto, 72, originally from Italy, now living in Virginia. “A little cold, but great,” she says. “Warm inside.”

Noon – Obama is somewhere in the distance at the Capitol. We’re watching the Jumbotrons waiting for the swearing-in ceremony. It’s accompanied by the sound of a champagne cork popping, the scent of marijuana, tears of joy.

12:30 p.m. – Words of hope and change hang in the cold air as the new president concludes his inaugural address. A Canadian nearby provides a hockey analogy. “Imagine the U.S. being an NHL team – now they’ve got their Gretzky and they’re going to kick some ass,” says Lubomir Dzamba, an architect from Mississauga.

12:45 p.m. – As the now-former president’s helicopter flies above, leaving the city, Jeremy Taylor, a college-aged student in Washington, is holding a sign that reads: Arrest Bush. “Arrest his policies and his issues, put them all in a bag and throw them in a river that flows to nowhere,” he says.

3 p.m. – Near the Obamas’ parade route, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Bergman is helping direct traffic. “No problems today at all,” he says. He’s backed up by news that the 40,000-plus security forces report no arrests or serious incidents.

8:30 p.m. – After four hours of research at The Sign of the Whale pub, we get our only glimpse of the evening’s formal festivities, when an SUV with two partygoers aboard crashes into a shuttle-bus carrying about a dozen women in gowns and men in tuxedos. They have to walk to the inaugural balls.

Wednesday, Jan. 21

9 p.m. – Cross the border – home – leaving the land of hope and change.


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