Back when Ohioans Janet and Terry Carson were teenage sweethearts, they regularly piled into a car and headed to the nation’s capital to join the masses of Vietnam War protesters. Now they’ve made the same trek to again feel part of a larger, nation-changing event: the inauguration of Barack Obama.
“I see this grassroots politics coming back,” says Janet Carson, whose earlier trips to Washington launched a lifetime of Democratic political activism. “When people actually pick up and go someplace and participate on that level, you can’t ignore it. The public will be heard.”
And heard they will be tomorrow. As many as three million celebrants are expected for Obama’s inauguration, an onslaught of visitors Washington has been absorbing for several days. Obama will be sworn in just before noon on Tuesday and become the nation’s first African American president. Across the region, preparations are being carried out for security, logistics, cold weather and several days of concerts, ceremonies and black-tie balls.
The full length of the National Mall will be open during an inauguration for the first time, to accommodate the crush of people. Almost two dozen Jumbotron screens will broadcast along the grassy expanse between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, where Obama will take the oath to become the 44th U.S. president.
The Carsons, who have been married now for 38 years and own an insurance agency in Cleveland’s exurbs, will be spared the scramble for a place to stand and watch. They’ll have seats to witness the swearing-in (their first) because both served as delegates to last summer’s Democratic presidential nominating convention (another first) and because Janet Carson was one of Ohio’s presidential electors.
The Carsons first jumped into the 2008 presidential campaign to work for Hillary Clinton. After the bitter and drawn-out Democratic primary, they went to the convention as delegates of the New York senator but left Denver persuaded to redirect their energy to elect Obama. Still, at a party of Ohio Democrats in a basement bar and pool hall Saturday night, a pained look came over Janet Carson’s face when one state politician asked what if the inauguration were to have been Clinton’s. Janet Carson, the Democratic chairperson for Geauga County, admitted that Clinton’s election would have made Inauguration Day—also Janet’s 59th birthday—even more exciting.
The Carsons had driven straight from their rural town into the heart of the District of Columbia, reminiscing along the way about their youthful protest trips. Daughter April, a Washington attorney, laughed about the pictures she has of her parents’ early years–her mom carrying protest signs and her dad with long curly hair and thick sideburns.
Now 58, sprouting a lot less hair and wearing a striped Ralph Lauren shirt, Terry Carson is optimistic that some of the spirit of the ‘60s will live on in the new administration. His 33-year-old daughter, who volunteered her legal skills for Obama in Ohio and D.C., discerns a big difference already.
“It’s been frustrating for me, coming from a political family where I always felt you could change things through the political process. My friends never felt that way,” she says, recounting her struggles in past elections to get them to register and to vote. This year–charged up by Obama—her friends called to remind her to vote. “If the country will support someone so progressive, so different from a traditional candidate, there’s hope for change.”
Terry Carson is hoping for a very different relationship between the public and its government after what he sees as Bush administration failures on everything from the war in Iraq to overbearing airport security policies.
“Government is supposed to facilitate our lives,” he says. “[But in the past eight years] it’s made our lives more complicated.”
Terry Carson expects Obama to disappoint him and other Democrats in one sense: by not being tougher on Republicans. “I think he knows he has to govern from the center,“ he says. “I’ll be slightly disappointed, but I won’t be critical because I understand why.”