The Commons: How it looked from here

Watching the Governor General (and 150 of her closest friends) watch Obama make history

In the main ballroom of Rideau Hall, the DJ was spinning a track by Gil Scott-Heron, a man who said the revolution would not be televised. In the middle of the room, a giant TV screen showed images from Washington, former presidents taking their respective places on the capitol’s massive stage.

The Governor General was throwing something of a party, inviting 150 young people to sit underneath a crystal chandelier and watch what was unanimously considered history before it had even officially occured.

She offered a few opening words, Her Excellency Michaelle Jean speaking in that way she does, as if from the deepest part of her chest. She talked of slavery and indignation, joy and hope, suffering and freedom. She spoke of Barack Obama as he must seem to her—a living embodiment of the ideals she holds tightly.

“In these times, when the most fragile among us are threatened by an uncertain economy, by the folly of war and the tension born of prejudice, let us all rejoice in the wave of hope that is filling our hearts,” she said. “It is the hope for a world where human beings will at last find their place at the centre of the systems they have created to make life the most wondrous of adventures.”

She turned the proceedings over to the show.

In Washington, George W. Bush appeared. There were boos and hisses and, maybe most cutting, chuckles from the Rideau crowd.

There was applause when the image of the new commander-in-chief, standing tall and upright, filled the screen. Silence as America prayed. Cheers for Aretha Franklin and the ornate bow atop her head. Whoops for Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.

As Obama took the oath, kids snapped pictures of the screen. When he finished there was loud applause. Some stood. A man in the back row leaned over and kissed the woman beside him.

Then, finally, the first words of a new president.

He spoke of humility, peace, struggle, reilience, crisis, war, hatred, greed and irresponsibility. Hope, unity, youth, spirit, nobility, equality and freedom.

A hundred and fifty people in a ballroom watched several million in Washington watching Barack Obama as he looked out upon the enormity of it all.

He talked of greatness, work, risk, prosperity, sacrifice, power, ambition, memory, cynicism, politics, government, accountability, trust, safety, ideals, friendship, convictions, strength, heritage and religion. History and change. Gratitude and service. Faith and determination. Tolerance and curiosity. Loyalty and patriotism. A new era of responsibility.

And hope. Above all else, hope.

There was more applause. Then the television screen was turned off and the discussion turned over to a series of guest speakers and the young people in attendance, many of them beaming.

For two hours they talked about civic life, almost exclusively in the most romantic of terms.

A professor prodded everyone to think about the “nature of power” and the “potential for change,” but also the “ethics” of our democracy and the need for vigilance. A university student wondered about the “elephant in the room”—that of our politics and the inevitable comparison. Someone dared speak the word “prorogue.” But otherwise, this was a discussion of politics without the messy specifics. There was discussion of leadership and inspiration, power and responsibility, citizenship and the greater good, fear and apprehension, race and identity, vision and opportunity. There was pride for some, tears from another. They spoke of motivation and perspective, onus and apathy, the individual and the community.

At times, there was frustration and impatience.

But underneath it all there was hope.

Around 2:30pm, about two hours into Barack Obama’s presidency, Michaelle Jean went back to the podium to offer some final words. She spoke as she does about togetherness and humanity. She talked of “the necessity to feel empowered.” Again, there was applause.

And then a rapper was called on stage and the DJ filled the ballroom with beats and Her Excellency joined in the dancing.

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