My first experience at our nation’s capital was as an eighth grader at Moultrie Middle School. We chartered a few buses with students, teachers and parent/ chaperones to spend a few days visiting all the historical attractions. Although I have been back to D.C. many times since, I had not reflected on that first trip until I was leaving Washington after a weekend centered on the Inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.
I, along with millions of other Americans, made the journey to Washington to take in the historic tradition of peacefully transitioning out a president while swearing in a new one. This would be my first Inauguration, and I did not know exactly what to expect. I had watched in amazement over the past two years as the 2016 presidential election winnowed down from 25 candidates to two nominees, and then again as the political pundits and pollsters stumbled over each other on election night to make sense of how their predictions had been so wrong.
Now a little more than two months later, after Trump had announced many of his cabinet appointments and the confirmation hearings were in full swing, Americans both for and against the president-elect were making their way to the capital to celebrate or protest.
My trip began in earnest on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 19. I had spent the week working in Atlanta, so I was taking a direct flight to Washington. As I was boarding my plane, a few secret service agents were gathered around the entrance, so I knew there was a dignitary onboard. As I walked past first class, I noticed former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, already seated – presumably heading to D.C. for the same reason I was on the plane.
Before taking off, Carter walked the length of the aisle, greeted all passengers – those wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and those protesting the new president and his policies. As he made his way to the back of the plane, one lady stood up and asked if he’d join her in protesting the president-elect on Saturday. He shook his head, and then pivoted, as if speaking to everyone on the plane, and said: “Everything is going to be all right.” As he ambled back to his seat, he was given a roaring ovation from a divided plane full of celebrators and protesters, Republicans and Democrats.
After landing at Ronald Reagan International airport, I hurriedly traveled to DuPont Circle, where I was staying over the weekend, changed into black tie attire and proceeded to attend the South Carolina Presidential Inaugural Ball. This event, and many others, ran in conjunction with the Inauguration, where folks who had worked hard to elect the president took some time to celebrate after a bruising two-year campaign.
On Friday morning, Jan. 20, I made my way to the Capitol grounds at 6 a.m. to secure a good spot for viewing the ceremony. By the time I arrived, protesters were already firmly in place, and tens of thousands of people had already arrived in hopes of getting a good view of this historic event. Over the course of the next five hours, hundreds of thousands of people would trickle in and fill the National Mall. I stood with friends from the Upstate, a family from Michigan, a group of young professionals from Texas and two brothers from New York. We talked about why we came.
The friends from the Upstate were conservative activists and came to celebrate a Republican return to the White House.
The Michigan family, heavily involved in the auto industry, came because of Trump’s focus on renegotiating trade deals and bringing American manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt.
The Texas-based young professionals came to celebrate a new era of reduced regulations and tax reform.
The brothers from New York, dressed in red and blue suits, came to watch a New York born-and-raised businessman take the oath of office – and because they were huge fans of Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka.
And I came because I still had the boy-like wonder I’ve carried since my first trip to the capital many years ago as a Moultrie Middle School student. D.C. represents our nation’s history and this was, undoubtedly, history in the making.
As I left Washington, I couldn’t help but think that, despite the many issues our leaders face, the city still represents the ideals and values that have made this nation great.
Although millions of people celebrated Trump’s Inauguration within the city on Friday, the very next day, on Saturday, millions took to the streets to protest. Within 48 hours, millions of people on different sides of the political aisle – and sometimes diametrically opposed to each other’s beliefs – drove, flew or took the train to our nation’s capital. In many cases, they sat by each other on the way in, making small talk – reveling in the fact that former President Carter was on the plane – flying commercial for goodness sake. Then they took a stand – celebrating a new era of American leadership that puts America first or protesting policies they felt detrimental to themselves or their families. Then they packed up their belongings and shifted their thinking to home, family and work and began their journeys back to Greenville, Michigan, Texas, New York and Charleston.
As my plane ascended and I looked out the window at D.C., I saw our great capital – full of life and sorting out what a Trump administration might come to mean. Like the 13-year-old who left Washington many years ago, I’m not sure what the future holds. What I do know is this: If D.C. can withstand such a historic transition of power without bursting at the seams, every community across America is tough enough to endure and accommodate the many different opinions we hold.
And as Jimmy Carter said – no matter where you are on the political spectrum, “Everything’s going to be all right.” We live in America, a country that may bend but never breaks.