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Late Night: The Purple Presidency of Doom

The morning of the inaugural--how often has this been repeated in the last year? (WH photo by Pete Souza)

The morning of the inaugural--how often has this been repeated in the last year? (WH photo by Pete Souza)

I know what you wanted. You wanted me to title this post: Worst. Inaugural. Year. Ever.

Sorry, just can’t say it.

It would make for one heck of a lot of extra hits, that headline, but it would also make for a heck of a lot of extra punches (of the written kind, anyway)—and none of us need that right now, do we?

We don’t need it because we already have plenty of fights right now—important fights about issues—without tossing sarcasm and hyperbole into the ring.

It was a year ago this week that I posted what I thought was a rather dry, factual, personal report on what I experienced while waiting, freezing, and struggling not to get crushed as I tried to get in to see the inauguration of President Barack Obama. You see, that morning, I was part of the crowd that had snaked through what would quickly become known as the “Purple Tunnel of Doom.”

I had actually arrived early enough that I was in front of the tunnel, but the journey was no less futile.

What had begun as an incredible gathering of happy, enthusiastic, energized citizens was transformed into an angry, crushed, and crestfallen mob. What had begun for all of us as a day filled with both immediate and long-term hope, ended in bitter disappointment. How? Why? Terrible planning on the part of Sen. Feinstein’s inaugural committee, a weak, undersized and misallocated presence by the DC police, half-assed and poorly thought-out attempts to fix the problems once they became miserably clear—a seemingly complete lack of leadership, followed by an easily disprovable rewriting of the day’s events, followed by platitudes, excuses, and finger-pointing.

And then there were the vague promises that it would somehow be made up to us with some sort of invitation to a party or anniversary event. . . now, just past the first anniversary of that day, we all know where that went.

Not that I care about that—or about any of it, really—it seems like a million years ago. So much has happened since I was shaken by the loud report of the inaugural’s 21-gun salute. So much more important fury would follow that celebratory sound.

To be honest, the year has not been as solidly unpleasant as that morning—we do have those green shoots, that too-small stimulus package that kept this dreadful recession from diving into a deeper depression, for instance—but it has been just as disappointing. From the inability to close Guantanamo, to the unacceptable decision to continue a policy of indefinite detentions; from the remote-controlled predator war in Pakistan, to the all-too-human escalation in Afghanistan; from the failure to really put the Justice Department back in order, to the revelation that, earlier this month, said DoJ retroactively legalized Bush-era collaborations between telecoms and the FBI that saw thousands of Americans spied upon without justification or court order; and, of course, from the campaign promises of serious health care reform, through all the twists, turns, distractions, and outright lies that have turned what should have been a signature moment into a shameful soap opera, this first year of the Obama Administration has been about misdirection, missed opportunities, and missing leadership.

Naturally, it is possible to take the metaphor too far (a colleague reminded me that last year’s inaugural day also saw the collapse of Teddy Kennedy caused by the brain tumor that would first take him out of the health care negotiations, and later take his life), but it is not easy to look back on this year that started with a personal let down, and grew to a national one. I have to say that even if there were some sort of “make up” party or first anniversary event, I would have no interest in going. There is just not enough to honor here.

No, I am not going to goad you by saying this was the worst first year in presidential history, but when there was so much to do, and so much promise to do it—and when there were such sizable Democratic majorities to do it with—it is an unhappy anniversary of an unpleasant day.

Besides, claiming this was the worst inaugural year ever just wouldn’t be honest. By this point in the presidency of William Henry Harrison, he had been fertilizing his own green shoots for better than 320 days.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine