WASHINGTON -- It is the curse of the journalist always to be present, but never really There.
The job requires that we stand slightly apart, seeing but not believing; hearing without being seduced. We jot down the words, careful not to let them get under our skin. Like surgeons in the operating room, we can't afford to become emotionally involved lest we notice the blood and let the scalpel slip.
Then comes the rare instance that penetrates the armor, when something causes you to put down the pad, turn off the camera in your head, and become part of the moment. The short list in recent history includes the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the signal marches on Washington, the terrorist attacks of 9/11. To those we may now add Inauguration Day 2009.
It would be nice to have just the right words to sum up what happened Tuesday. As for so many in this frigid city, le mot juste is just beyond reach. This is why we have poets.
The days preceding had tested Washington's tolerance for the prosaic. Think Disney World and Mardi Gras combined. Add subfreezing temperatures, impossible traffic and maddening security. Throw in helicopters buzzing, sirens wailing, interminable lines and, oh yes, battalions of porta-potties standing sentry along the perimeter of America's Paris.
Despite confusion and frustration, the mood suggested that those helicopters were dropping fairy dust into the ozone. All aggravations seemed to fade as the sun rose on the event that drew perhaps millions to be part of the swearing-in of the first African-American president of the United States.
We knew it was coming. We had already exhausted the story before it was fully written. And yet, when the hour finally arrived and Obama raised his right hand, his presidency was somehow not quite imaginable.
Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, extremities numb despite layers of wool, and seeing so many gathered to witness this thing they called "change" was, dare I say it, awesome. That most-annoying hipster term for anything remotely acceptable is suddenly useful for its intended purpose.
For awe is the truest word to describe what transpired and what was inspired.
It is not only awe for Obama's meteoric rise to the highest human power. It is not only that so many trekked so far to be present for the moment. It is not even awe for the peaceful transfer of power for which Americans are deservedly proud.
It is awe for what is, in fact, not change, but the natural, if difficult, progression of an ideal that is true and good and transcendent through time. Barack Obama's presidency isn't a change from, but a continuation of the American experiment toward its hoped-for destination.
Obama hinted at this in his speech by invoking American values of hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. In honoring all those who came before, who fought and died from Concord and Gettysburg to Normandy and Khe Sanh, he reminded us that change is not a single event on Election Day, but an evolutionary process.
The change we've been waiting for? No, the goal we were always aiming for.
Americans really do believe in the dreams of our Founding Fathers, who envisioned and articulated what is at our human core -- the profound desire for a more perfect union. The vast majority of Americans really do believe, as Obama said Tuesday, in the "God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
And so, Barack Obama, biracial offspring of the American dream, came to be president.
It is now the day after. Work awaits, bills remain, wars persist. The afterglow is hard to sustain as the promise of yesterday becomes tomorrow's challenges. Armor on, cameras whirring, pens poised.
The march toward a more perfect union continues.
Good luck, Mr. President.