In a November interview with 60 Minutes, a week and a half after the election, Steve Croft asked Michelle and Barack Obama how their lives had changed since the election.
MICHELLE: You know, it's calmed down a bit. I mean, we're— We're back into more of a routine. BARACK: There's still some things we're not adjusted to. MICHELLE: Like what? BARACK: Like— MICHELLE: What do you want? BARACK: Me not being able to take a walk. MICHELLE: Oh, well, you know... BARACK: No, I mean, those are things that— MICHELLE: I don't walk as much as he does. So I guess I don't miss it. BARACK: Yeah, I mean, you know. MICHELLE: You want to go for a walk? BARACK: I do. I'd love to go for a walk. Although it's cold today. But... MICHELLE: Yeah, I wouldn't go with you. BARACK: I know. Well, that's something I don't think I'll ever get used to. I mean, the loss of anonymity. And this is not a complaint. This is part of what you sign up for... [I miss] being able to just wander around the neighborhood.
Of all the things he's said in interviews before and after the election, this is the one exchange that I think about most, that makes me feel closest to the guy, and last night in his honor I took the Metro into the city, got out at Federal Triangle, and went for a walk. To see Lincoln.
The National Mall is a lot less crowded now that it was three days ago, but in the dark all the Porta Potties are still standing there, thousands of them, the stuff inside them probably frozen. There's a ritualistic-looking circle of 170-odd Porta Potties to the southeast of the Washington Monument; there are hundreds and hundreds of Porta Potties lining both sides of the frozen reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial; there are hundreds more lined up along Constitution Avenue and strange clusters of two or four scattered elsewhere. A young lady who had to go slowly opened the door to one and said, "Oooh, it's scary in there!" The guy with her said, "Use your cell phone," meaning, use it as a flashlight. A third friend said, "Don't drop it!" There are stacks of rented fences all over, and lots more rented fences that haven't been stacked yet. There are weirdly empty vendor tents, their white flaps blowing in the freezing wind, and big rented lights lighting up empty patches of grass.
From afar, the Lincoln Memorial looked like the site of a party, looked very Hollywood, with flashbulbs going off constantly, though it wasn't until I got closer that I saw how mobbed the place was, swarming with people. Many of them were wearing white-and-red striped scarves, like Waldo from the Where's Waldo? books.
There was a young woman with a sign that said WE CHOOSE LIFE. I played dumb. She explained, "We came here for the March for Life rally today." The Waldos—most of them young, many of them guys—were pro-life activists. Then came another wave of people (dozens and dozens) in orange beanies that said, "Diocese of Rockford March for Life" and, on the back, "Life HQ!" Then another wave of people, maybe four-dozen strong, in blue lanyards that said "Fall River Diocese: 2009 Pro-Life Pilgrimage."
A self-appointed tour guide was leading the people in orange beanies around the memorial, dispensing wisdom about the monument, not all of it true. He said, "There's a certain section on the other side"—referring to the side of the memorial in which Lincoln's second inaugural address is carved—"that will mean a lot to you. So, if you want to move to the other side..." And they all started walking, and I surreptitously followed. When we got there he pointed to the section in the address about how both the North and the South prayed to the same God, hoping that He would help them vanquish the other...
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
"Pretty amazing, isn't it?" the self-appointed tour guide said. "Both sides claim God was on their side. Does that make you think of a different issue, other than slavery?"
"Oooh, yeah!" a lady replied.
"They don't talk like this anymore," the tour guide went on. "You mention God three times in a speech now, you're over with." It took all I had not to tell them that Lincoln didn't believe in Christ or the afterlife, in spite of his public rhetoric, or to ask what they all thought about that surprising word in Obama's inaugural address earlier in the week: "nonbelievers."
Hanging out there was becoming unenjoyable, though the anti-abortionists were happily running all around the monument, looking for the typo in the carved letters (and constantly misidentifying it), jumping off the steps three people at a time to get mid-flight shots for their Facebook pages, saying insane things to one another ("My cousin got date raped and it actually helped the healing to have the baby"), and running out onto the frozen reflecting pool. After 10 or 15 kids were out walking on it, all the way in the center of it and not stopping, an adult came down and barked at several guys standing on the edge and thinking of joining them, "Christians! Stop, stop! Stop!"
I continued with my walk, up to the White House, where a group of young adults and their parents were standing against the gate wearing green hoodies that said "You formed me in my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. —Psalm 139:13." They were holding candles and murmuring, "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now in the hour of our death. Amen." Some of them were dripping the wax onto the sidewalk, making shapes. I imagined the Obamas inside, jumping on the bed, screaming out variations on Can you believe we live in the White House now? Can you believe how comfortable this bed is? Can you believe it?
I headed north on Pennsylvania. The Washington Monument veined in the bare trees. White buildings glowing orange in the street lamps. Heaps of trash bags at the curb. Empty bleachers still sitting there days after the parade. Empty folding chairs. Limp bunting. More Porta Potties. A hot-dog vendor shuttering his cart. The mixed-up clutter of square and circular windows of the Willard Intercontinental Suites, all lit up. Casimir Pulaski on his horse, black against the bright buildings behind him. Historical photos as window displays in a CVS Pharmacy. The Capitol Building lit up like a souvenir at the end of the avenue. A big banner on an office building reading "WELCOME MR. PRESIDENT" and another one a few floors below it reading "THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT," no commas on either of them. A man saying to his wife, "Now we need a relaxing vacation. This wasn't a vacation. We need to get away."