Reflections On An Inaugural Weekend, 2013

By Rachel Nadelman

I lived in Washington D.C. for just over a year when President Obama was inaugurated the first time.   Having spent the entirety of my post-college, independent-adult life under the Bush administration, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I stood freezing on the National Mall with more than a million others listening to our new president speak.   In 2012, I was equally as passionate about Barack Obama’s re-election and second term, but my optimism had been tempered.   Even with the administration’s achievements, we supporters experienced many let downs and had to understand, if not accept, what some call “political reality.”

Photo of Rachel and Max, courtesy of Max Ashwill

I entered the 2013 inauguration season as a five year Washingtonian, grateful for President Obama’s re-election, unable to even process the alternative, but no longer brandishing the idealism I had brought with me to the National Mall four years earlier.   From the “unofficial” Peace Ball filled with local and national progressive heroes, to standing room tickets at the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony and an unexpected entrance to an OFFICIAL inaugural ball — I had the chance to experience my nation’s capital, my hometown and my president’s start to a new term in a way I had not expected.


Peace Ball photo courtesy of Kim Smolik

The inaugural celebrating began for me on Sunday, at the second ever “Peace Ball: Voices of Hope and Resistance” sponsored by Bus Boys n Poets, DC’s “lefty restaurant empire.”   It was a follow-up to the 2009 event that brought together activists to celebrate the election of the first African American President and call attention to issues of peace and justice in that moment of transition. The 2013 gala reflected the conflicted spirit of the attendees — relieved and celebratory, but skeptical and critical.   Guests were of course dolled up as one would imagine for an inaugural event. Yet, as one might also expect from a progressive crowd, there were more than a few who challenged the inaugural black tie standard with activist gear (i.e. t-shirts screaming “choose kindness” or “use arms for hugging”), non-western formal wear, men in fabulous gowns and women in sharp tuxes and suits.

The festivities fanned out across the theater’s two majestic floors. On the top level, where guests could mostly only watch the impassioned speakers, poets and musicians via video projected on the wall, my friends and I found it quite easy to lose sight of the peace and justice messages and become lost in the glamour, the crowd, the alcohol and the finger food. The Bus Boys founder admonished his guests to be respectful and quiet while featured speakers like Ralph Nader and Angela Davis tried to rouse us to action.   The shushing had little effect. As the night wore on, I lost track of my friends and I wandered down to the first floor. An alternate universe from the second floor, the lights were dim and guests crowded at the foot of a stage; there it was natural to become enveloped by the speaker’s words and when a here of mine, NAACP’s Julian Bond spoke, I knew exactly why I had come. When planning for inauguration weekend had no idea a close friend would pass on tickets to the swearing in and an official ball. I’ll admit, I likely wouldn’t have roused myself from bed after late-night progressive partying to freeze far from the swearing in ceremony on the Mall since I had “done that”   in 2008. But coveted standing room tickets on the Capitol Lawn?? Sleep, smeep, I wasn’t missing this! My friend and I elected to avoid public transport craziness and bicycle down; with the wind in my face at times and at my back at others, it only increased my anticipation.

Photo courtesy of Kim Smolik

Beforehand, I  hadn't  thought much about what the president would say. If I had hidden expectations, he surpassed them. “From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall” is the only phrase I remember verbatim. I  didn't  know, as I heard the name “Stonewall,” that this was the first time an inaugural address emphasized that the fight for LGBT rights was inextricably linked to revered American struggles for women’s and civil rights, but I knew that I had never heard such a message from a president’s mouth. That moment was just one of several that inspired me to yell out in support and jump up and down, not the least of which was the emphasis on climate change and the ballsy choice of words when challenging climate deniers with the carefully phrased “overwhelming judgment of science.” I’ll wholeheartedly admit that during the speech I absolutely forgot the skepticism and cynicism that pumped along with the spirit at the Peace Ball the night before. The swearing in ceremony was the most meaningful, memorable part of the weekend.

Photo courtesy of Kim Smolik

For the official inaugural ball I didn’t have the time (or cash) to purchase the “called for” floor-length dress, but today it’s acceptable to go cocktail for black-tie. All the official balls took place at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center, with different ticket colors indicating access. Not surprisingly, my ticket — blue — was the bottom of the food chain. The lines for blue ticket holders wrapped round and round and round then round again the convention center. It hadn’t occurred to me I’d spend an hour outside waiting to be allowed into the ball, otherwise I would have been smart enough to have worn stockings with my open-toed shoes — at least for the wait in below freezing weather.   By the time I entered I felt slightly grumpy, disoriented and hardly glamorous. But my luck changed slightly since I arrived in time to see the President and First Lady come out for a dance to Jennifer Hudson singing “Let’s Stay Together.”   The president didn’t speak directly to us, but seeing the first couple groove together was super fun in and of itself.   The rest of the night is an exciting blur of pretzels and peanuts (yes, that is the entirety of the food at the low-end ball), lines for drink tickets (no open bar), lines for drinks…and then the live music! For me — more than the first couple’s dance, the Vice President and his wife’s dance to Jamie Foxx, songs by John Legend and cast members from Glee — the highlight of my night was Stevie Wonder’s live performance. Hearing my own voice sing along to “Superstition,” cushioned by perhaps a thousand others and led by Stevie is something I will never forget.

Inaugural ball photo courtesy of Alexandra Bell

Even though Tuesday meant re-entry into “real life” and I’d had a weekend of minimal sleep, we planned to hang on until the very end…and then, in a sharp change of musical style we were greeted by Sound Garden. If the organizers wanted to get the crowds to clear out without argument, there may not have been a better method.   I’m a girl that loves rock, but that just  wasn't  the moment…

And with that, my inauguration weekend came to a close.


Rachel Nadelman has spent over a decade committed to issues of domestic and international service and development with community-based organizations and international institutions. Since 2007 she has worked with the World Bank Group in Washington, DC as a Social Development and Gender Specialist, primarily on issues related to agriculture, governance and women’s inclusion in Haiti, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Ecuador. Since 2009, she has primarily focused on Haiti and the wellbeing of Haitian women. Rachel has lived and worked abroad including in rural Nicaragua, where she partnered with a women’s health cooperative. She has also worked in Argentina and Uganda.

Beyond her professional endeavors in international development, Rachel is committed to local community engagement. Since she moved to the nation’s capital in 2007, she has been a member of the Washington organization Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) and a co-chair for JUFJ’s 2012 benefit which honored Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. She is also active with DC Votes, an organization working for full representation for Washington DC residents and is a volunteer tutor (in Spanish and English) for immigrants striving to pass the American Citizenship exam. Rachel has a BA from Brown University, an MA in International Affairs from The New School and is currently a second year PhD student at American University's School of International Service (SIS) where she is a recipient of SIS’ Dean Fellowship.