MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
The year was 1997. I was a freshman at The George Washington University, and Bill Clinton was about to be sworn in as president for his second term. I never considered going to the Inauguration. I didn’t even realize the public could just walk out there and view the entire thing. Didn’t you need tickets? My friend from elementary school who had met up with me again in college, Alex Laster, informed me that you didn’t and that I must go. He said it was my obligation and asked, “Wasn’t this the entire reason to go to school in D.C.?” In fact, it was.
Alex had spent first semester of our freshman year working for Clinton’s opponent Bob Dole, but he was still going to see the Inauguration in all its splendor. This was about celebrating democracy, being a patriot, loving America and that special peaceful transfer of power that separates us from all the rest. Sadly, Alex passed away about nine years ago, and I am grateful to my childhood friend and always remember him fondly, not least of all for forcing me to go to the 1997 Presidential Inauguration.
So, a group of us – bundled in fleece, down feathers, and long johns and with hot chocolate in hand – headed to the Capitol at 5 in the morning. Some of us hadn’t slept at all. There were gates barring us from getting too close. Those seats were reserved for those with tickets. So, we sat right down on the sidewalk to stake out our spot. I don’t remember much about what we said or did in the hours before the swearing in. But I do remember trembling, shaking, and wondering if this was going to be worth the frost bite.
Then, I remember getting the chills – and not just from the cold – when the President and his family filed into place on the steps and he recited, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Then, Clinton spoke, and I recognized the weight of what I was watching, the way this was so much more than pomp and circumstance, how this moment was about to shape our future in ways good and bad and in ways that would outlast his four more years in the White House. Here’s just some of what he said in the last inaugural speech of the 20th century, which still resonates today:
…The future is up to us. Our Founders taught us that the preservation of our liberty and our Union depends upon responsible citizenship. And we need a new sense of responsibility for a new century. There is work to do, work that Government alone cannot do: teaching children to read, hiring people off welfare rolls, coming out from behind locked doors and shuttered windows to help reclaim our streets from drugs and gangs and crime, taking time out of our own lives to serve others.
Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility not only for ourselves and our families but for our neighbors and our Nation. Our greatest responsibility is to embrace a new spirit of community for a new century. For any one of us to succeed, we must succeed as one America. The challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future: Will we be one Nation, one people, with one common destiny, or not? Will we all come together, or come apart?
I became a patriot that day. An interest in politics had driven me to go to school in the nation’s capital. My friend was right in that we had to go to witness history after having chosen GW for this very reason. Now, I was feeling it in the core of my being. Despite the frigid air, a warmth washed over me. Upon reflection, I was certain it was a sweet sentiment more than an intellectual thought.
My heart was full of love of country, yes. But the emotion was bringing me to a greater conclusion about just how lucky I am that my family moved from Italy, and I am a bona-fide American. What other country in the world so deftly and passionately elevates the idea of democracy and not just in name? Here, we witnessed the result of free elections, the result of practicing our civic duty. I was sitting with Dole voters, who still wanted to see the historic significance of the day and celebrate the system, even if they weren’t necessarily happy with the winner.
The Inauguration gives all Americans a chance to contemplate how they want to shape their own future. On that day back in 1997, my eye was often trained on Hillary Clinton, who was wearing hot pink. I’ll never forget it. She commanded attention – at least from me – in a way she hadn’t before. Still, never did I imagine she would go on to be Senator of New York or Secretary of State, never mind the first woman ever to be nominated by a major political party.
Of course, I could not anticipate the plague of scandal that would dominate Clinton’s second term. In fact, for about a year, every time my friends and I went grocery shopping at the nearby Watergate, we would get photographed by paparazzi, who would snap pics of any woman with brown hair in hopes she was the mistress Monica Lewinsky. At my CNBC internship, I was often welcoming Ann Coulter, who made it her job to rip the Clintons apart regularly on the political shows that would evolve into MSNBC. And for a radio internship, I stood in line at the congressional bookstore (along with everyone else in town) for hours just to purchase the Starr Report. Remember that?
All that was coming didn’t matter on Inauguration Day. Politics didn’t even matter. America mattered on Inauguration Day. Democracy mattered on Inauguration Day. History mattered on Inauguration Day. My awakening to freedom – and all the responsibility that comes with it – mattered on Inauguration Day. So, today, I wish you a happy and healthy Inauguration. No matter what happens, the future is up to us.