Back in January of 1993, I stood outside in the cold and wet in Washington, D.C. to watch the festivities leading up to Bill Clinton being sworn in as our 42nd president. I was just seventeen, accompanied by my parents and two high school friends, and my feet were freezing in the mud and snowmelt. We climbed up trees and barricades, my friends and I, in our attempts to escape the mud. We even accepted lifts from taller, stronger people who offered to help hoist us scraggly teenagers to the tops of the portable toilet stalls for a better view.
That is where I spent the majority of my time that day – on the small roof of a public john where people in need of relief tried to ignore my presence directly above them. I’m sorry if I distracted anyone from answering the call of nature, but at least my feet stayed dry and out of the mud. I could see Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross very clearly from my portable rooftop. Tony Bennett even briefly appeared. Shai performed, LL Cool J showed up, as did Bob Dylan. Maya Angelou read a poem.
About George W. Bush’s inauguration, Sarah Vowell wrote in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, quoting her friend Kevin,
I found myself looking down, too, at all the mud on the Mall, and thinking about how young this country was. This was, after all, the primeval mud of our soggy capital, sunk into a Maryland swamp that everyone – diplomats, presidents, congressmen – used to complain about in the early decades of Washington’s existence. There were plans in the mid-nineteenth century to really landscape the Mall – to turn it into some ingeniously planned English-style facsimile of nature, much like Central Park. But the landscape architect they hired died in a spectacular steamboat crash on the Hudson, and they never did get around to putting his plan in place.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington and that wasn’t until 1801. In 1817, James Monroe was the first to take the oath outdoors. Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural parade in 1865, which honored his second term, was the first time African-Americans were allowed to participate. A month later on the day of Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson was sworn in. There have since been 43 separate presidential inaugurations. Not all have been at the Capitol and not all have been outdoors. But imagine, if you can, how many millions of people have stood in these piles of mud and snowmelt just to be a part of the same crowd, before and after the official construction of the Mall. I, for one, love to stand in a spot for a while and envision who before me has seen the same thing. Yes, even if it’s just mud but especially if it’s 200 years’ worth of mud!
That landscape architect mentioned above, Andrew Jackson Downing, was memorialized at this place with an urn that stood on the Mall until 1965. It has since been moved to the Smithsonian Castle lawn. Downing was not the only celebrated name to die in the disaster of the Henry Clay, that spectacular steamboat crash on the Hudson River in 1852. Nathaniel Hawthorn’s sister also perished. The following year, Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne’s close friend from his college years, took the oath of office on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. It faces the Mall that even then was thick with mud and snowmelt.
In ways I can’t define, we are all connected to the things that happen around us and to those who make things happen. My sentimental nature likes to imagine that I am kin to the people who have shared an experience with me. It doesn’t have to be shared on the same day or in the same year, it only has to be in the same mud.
(The United States was understandably a smaller country back then. Learning that Nathaniel Hawthorn had befriended the future president during college surprised me less than learning that Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, and Al Gore were once Harvard roomies and used to chase women together. Ick.)