Folks inside the Beltway are really starting to do the Jan. 20 math. Mass transit will be a mess on Inauguration Day. Forget finding a hotel room. Many people have decided to take the day off and watch the rites on television.
One number has started to loom over all the others -- 4 million.
Here's the lede on a Washington Post story that I meant to comment on several weeks ago, but it got lost in the shuffle.
District and federal officials are preparing for as many as 4 million people for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, a crowd that would be three or four times larger than previous big events on the Mall.
The Washington Examiner has also covered this subject, with a calmer approach. But it's the Post report that started the big buzz.
Now, if you know anything about the history of demonstrations here inside the Beltway, those words -- "three or four times larger than previous big events on the Mall" -- may sound like the opening notes from the theme from "Jaws." In this town, the simple act of requesting an estimate of the size of a crowd on the National Mall can turn the average public official into a pillar of salt. You can see hints of this struggle in that earlier Post report:
... (C)ould there be another Meltdown of '76? That year, a million spectators were expected on the Mall to celebrate the Bicentennial. Transit officials urged people to take public transportation and promised special service. But there was nothing special about the Fourth of July traffic jam, which stranded cars and buses for hours.
District and federal officials blamed a flawed and smaller mass transit system for the 1976 embarrassment. They expressed confidence that they can handle this January's events. At the same time, they know that Inauguration Day 2009 will be one of a kind.
Then later, we read this flashback:
The 1995 Million Man March, which drew about a million people, give or take a few hundred thousand, filled two-thirds of the one-mile section between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, according to photographs taken at the time. Farouk El-Baz, a Boston University expert who analyzed the crowd size, estimated that the entire two-mile stretch is so open that it could hold 3 million people. ...
The biggest inaugural crowd appears to be the 1.2 million people who are said to have attended events at the 1965 inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson, according to police and past news accounts.
Now something seems to be missing in all of this, and I am not referring to the years of debate about the Million Man March numbers.
No, it appears that there is a Gap in these stories, with a Big G, as in "Stand In The Gap." Let me offer a hat tip to Julia Duin over at the Washington Times Belief Blog for pulling this issue into print. You've got to hand it to Duin -- she has a unique perspective on this matter.
I attended all three events. Beginning with the gigantic July 4, 1976 bicentennial celebration, the Mall was packed, packed, packed from the Capitol down to the Lincoln Memorial. I was a college student then, sitting near the Lincoln Memorial and I remember well how crowded it was. However, we were spread out on blankets, so it wasn't like we were all standing bunched together. We sat there most of the day, which is what you had to do to get prime seating for the fireworks celebration that night.
I also was at the Million Man March. By the time you got anywhere near the Washington monument, the crowds were pretty spread out and concentrated around the jumbotrons. There were far fewer people there than at the Promise Keepers gathering two years later where people were largely standing much of the time AND packed together, which makes for a much denser crowd. Am mystified why the Other Paper did not mention that gathering, which drew plenty more folks.
I was at that Promise Keepers rally, too, as a commentator for the MSNBC team that offered the only day-long coverage of that massive event. At the time, I stressed that the event involved plenty of black and Hispanic Democrats as well as Republicans of all kinds and that, if you listened carefully, these cultural conservatives were already losing patience with the GOP leadership's failure to deliver the goods on family issues.
The bottom line, as I stated it in my wrap-up remarks that day: This was the Woodstock of the Charismatic Renewal Movement. But I digress. Like Duin, I heard media pros and public officials -- always off the record -- estimate that crowd at 1 million to 1.2 million.
Any inauguration is a big deal. This one will be a huge, huge deal in this city. If reporters are going to dig into the details of historic events on the National Mall, they should also investigate what happened during that Promise Keepers event, in terms of mass transit, parking, security issues, etc. It was one of the largest events in that space -- ever. It may have been the largest.