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.”
His attitude is in line with new polls showing Americans will be patient with Obama. While they’re confident that Obama can turn the economy around, they’re prepared to give him years to do so.
The Carsons use Ohio as an example of Obama’s opportunity. At first, Terry Carson had been dubious that Obama would carry Ohio, a state with many working-class white residents. But Saturday as the Carsons worked the room of Ohioans, from elected officials to grass roots party regulars, they heard a cheer go up when a big-screen television showed Obama arriving in Washington by train, just a few miles away. Yes, Obama had won Ohio over.
The worsening economy made a huge difference in pushing Ohio’s working-class voters over to Obama’s side, Carson says. Now Obama must find an answer to their economic prayers. Carson favors pumping more money into the still-faltering banking system and funding building projects that create jobs.
The Carsons have weathered the recession better than many Ohioans, whose state unemployment trust fund has run dry. The price tag for attending the inauguration was steep enough to keep away some of the Carson’s political colleagues. Ohio Democrats organized many events and reserved a block of rooms at the Mayflower Hotel downtown, where the four-night package came to $4,000 a couple.
The Carsons opted for the party Saturday night, a Sunday gala dinner, a ball on Tuesday and a few other events. But to save money, they’re staying at their daughter and son-in-law’s apartment on Capitol Hill. April, a lawyer with the liberal group Alliance for Justice, took in her parents instead of renting out her apartment for thousands of dollars, as neighbors had done.
“I guess I owe you big time,” Janet Carson says to her daughter. Even when the apartment’s pipes temporarily froze Saturday, raising the possibility they might have no running water, the Carsons could not be dissuaded from making the trip.
On inauguration eve—Martin Luther King Day—Obama is scheduled to launch Renew America Together, his call for Americans to make an ongoing commitment to better the lives of others in their communities and their country. Obama and his wife, Michelle, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will kick off the program by performing volunteer work in Washington.
Back in the Carsons’ home, Geauga County, Democrats are organizing a food drive and other volunteer events. That’s the sort of revival of 1960s activism the Carsons love.
“When you see people’s lives being made better and the country going in the direction you think it should, it’s rewarding,” Janet Carson says. “It’s the frosting on the cake for all the work we’ve done for eight years.”
Tamara Lytle was a correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel from 1997 to 2008.