Sunday, January 7, 2007

Inaugural Post: Crowd and Power

They looked like the people who could have crisscrossed the Boston Common any weekday: people of different races, different attire, different ages, not to mention walks of life. But, instead of going their way, they were flocked together on the slope of the Boston Common and overflowing onto Beacon Street. There were even faces looking on from windows high above Park Street.

What most of them also had in common was that it was hard to actually see Deval Patrick’s inauguration as the new governor, or even to catch it on a wide screen in front of the State House. For many, the inauguration was something to be absorbed, inferred, or even invented—a center of attention that took its bearings from the crowd.

Once the governor began his address, the crowd played its part with rounds of applause. There were also the preschoolers sitting down for lunch on Beacon Street. And there was the man in the brown mariner’s cap who walked about with a “Romney for President” sign, saying, “They shouldn’t be closing down the street like this.”

The address really did connect with the setting. The crowd was an extension (if only in time) of all those people who had arrived in Massachusetts on their different ships (though Patrick also mentioned others who had left the state behind). The connection with history embraced the Africans struggling for freedom on the Amistad and, just across from the ceremony on the steps of the State House, the renowned sculpture of the 54th Regiment. Just as the sculpture had morphed from what had originally been planned as a white commander on a horse, so had the more cloistered way of inaugurating a new governor. Instead of the sculpture being the “fishbone” in the city’s throat (words of Robert Lowell)—tough to swallow in the face of racial injustice and the “savage servility” of the age—it would practically be a backdrop for the governor’s clear voice. For a time, it was easier to overlook the recent UMass/McCormack Institute poll that found low ratings for race relations in Massachusetts and declining confidence in state government.

For all the novelty of the inauguration, the turnout may have been as small as the short-notice crowd on the same spot that greeted the Red Sox after the World Series victory in 2004. And neither of these events could match the biggest protests against the war in Vietnam. The crowd at the inaugural also had its limits of attention, as was the case with one woman who started back down Beacon Street after the new governor described his plan to reorganize the executive branch. “All right,” she said. “That’s it. I’m going.”

She missed the end of the speech, the stately crescendo in which people descended from their different ships of exile ascended to the “City on a Hill” as “God’s Children.” As the volume increased, it seemed the governor’s voice reverberated from high-rise condos and office towers, turning the space bounded by the State House and the Boston Common into one enormous room. The effect was churchly—perhaps one more throwback, to a time when the line between church and state in Massachusetts was practically non-existent. After all, this was oratory, political, though less like everyday sound bites than a sermon to believers (and true to its base in the Latin word for prayer). It’s hard to suppose that even the most wishful governor thought everyone standing before him believed in him and his agenda with dogmatic uniformity. But it was also hard to resist entirely the appeal of being part of something that was even larger than the physical dimensions of its time and place. Short of undergoing a religious conversion, I could sense how the event squared with Elias Canetti’s formulation: “In the crowd the individual feels he is transcending the limits of his own person. He has a sense of relief, for the distances are removed which used to throw him back on himself and shut him in.”

More likely, this was the effect on a man I met a few hours later, just after sunset. This was at Park Street and Tremont Street. The man was legally blind, and he had a cane, along with a medallion stamped with the letters “TRAV.” He was among the people who thought of the State House as their house, going inside one by one to shake hands with the new governor. The man said he asked the governor about serving on a public health advisory council. When the governor asked him why, he said it was because he knew about the needs of people who were visually impaired. He also knew about the importance of a campaign visit by candidate Deval Patrick to the Perkins School for the Blind.

The only reason we had this exchange was that the man noticed that I was taking a photo of the State House with a small digital camera on a tripod. I was in the middle of Park Street, paradoxically freed by a police barrier. Thanks to the inaugural, there was a rare opportunity to shoot photos from a corner that would normally be overrun with traffic. As I went back to the viewfinder, I wondered what it was that could be seen by someone who was legally blind. Beyond the darkness gathering in the Boston Common, the State House portico looked all the more illuminated. What also drew my attention was how close it seemed to the rest of the city: the grid of bare branches and wrought-iron fence, and the people mostly coming down the hill--small, dim, separate figures heading back home.