I volunteered to help my country on the Mall on Inauguration Day. Here's what happened.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 20 2010 6:59 AM

Little Hotties at the Mall

Volunteering at the inauguration was more satisfying than I had a right to expect. Plus, I got free hand warmers.

The crowd at the National Mall. Click image to expand.
Crowds on the National Mall on Inauguration Day

President Obama marks his one-year anniversary in office on Wednesday. As part of Slate's coverage, Nicholas Schmidle wrote about serving as a volunteer on the National Mall for Inauguration Day. Schmidle's dispatch, first published the day after the inauguration, is reprinted below. Slate's full coverage of the inauguration is here.

At 5 o'clock on Tuesday morning, two full hours before sunrise, I reported for duty at the base of the Washington Monument. A tangle of strobes beamed up from the center of the Mall, and more than mile away, a battery of floodlights illuminated the Capitol. Seven hours later, Barack Obama would be sworn in as president of the United States.

"Where's Team 13?!?"
"Team 6 meet here!"
"O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!"

Advertisement

Semipro team leaders called out directions at the scrum of volunteers rubbing their mittens together and swapping tales about who traveled the farthest or woke up the earliest. (Others scoffed when I griped about getting up at 3 a.m.) Then I heard a lady behind me exclaim in a thick, Southern accent, "I thaink I gotta dud."

The woman's outburst wasn't a result of being paired off with an unpromising partner for the day, but of the fact that her hand warmers—"Little Hotties"—weren't living up to their name. This was no time for faulty advertising. Temperatures hovered in the teens, and the wind mocked each and every layer of the allegedly "extreme conditions" gear that I'd put on that morning. Our shift lasted another 10 hours. I hoped that the "Little Hotties" just needed some time.

Weather aside, I felt more than a little uncomfortable and awkward when I showed up. The fact is, I had never volunteered a day in my life for anything. I am just not a rah-rah kind of guy. I guess I lack the civic gene. Sure, I had voted for Obama, but I never chanted "Yes, we can" or "O-BA-MA." Last week I asked myself whether I had done anything significant either to help Obama get elected or to help him succeed once in office. Having answered "no" to both questions, I raised the prospect of volunteering with my wife, a chronic do-gooder with numerous Habitat for Humanity projects under her belt.

"That's great," she replied. "I've already signed us up."

Among the various roles that any president should fill, perhaps the most crucial is the capacity to inspire the nation. Such inspiration can take numerous forms, from military service to the Peace Corps to AmeriCorps to just flying a flag in front of one's home. In Obama's inauguration speech, he called on Americans to show "a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves"; hours after being sworn in, I watched Obama on television endorsing a program called "USA Service."

Just how much will he reshape the way that Americans, especially minorities of all ages and liberal whites belonging to the generations after Vietnam, perceive national service? Based on my own impulse to volunteer, I would think a lot.

In preparatory e-mails leading up to the big day, I was told that my service would entail safety, information, surveillance, and watching for "unruly guests." Until I spotted the plethora of National Guardsmen, police, Secret Service, and Eagle Scouts, I thought this might have involved brandishing a taser. Alas, the guys in full uniform handled the more exciting jobs. My wife and I, sporting red knit caps with "volunteer" stitched across the forehead, greeted people and fielded questions. ("Sir, this is the Mall" and "Ma'am, the Porta-Potties are over there" were my two most popular replies.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 17 2014 10:20 AM White People Are Fine With Laws That Harm Blacks The futility of fighting criminal justice racism with statistics.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.