President Obama: #44 Arrives

At the Baker Center and elsewhere, Knoxvillians take in the history-making inauguration

Tuesday, downtown Knoxville was weirdly quiet. As another city 487 miles to the northeast tried to accommodate the largest crowd in its history, the streets of central Knoxville seemed subdued, torpid, almost empty.

It was probably more the cold behind the calm than the fact that the man being inaugurated president was the first candidate in 48 years to get the job without any help from Tennessee's voters. City-limits Knoxville may have voted for Obama, but statewide, which is all that counts in the Electoral College, his opponent won by a landslide. The 20-degree weather, abetted by the biggest snow to stick in a couple of years, albeit just an inch in some neighborhoods, and a stiff wind that kept blowing sidewalk signboards over, kept people inside. With kids off school, and neighborhood streets slick with ice, many spent the day at home. Many others watched the inauguration in offices; at Metro Pulse, several employees watched on a Reagan-era 10-inch with a single rabbit ear, enhanced with some homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

Few downtown businesses offered any commemoration of the day. In other cities, restaurants were offering Obama lunch specials, Obama drink specials. The Market Square Kitchen chalked, "Happy Inauguration Day!" on its sign outside. Rita's offered an inauguration special of red, white, and blue Italian ice, but the icy weather didn't do much to tempt passers by. Tomato Head kept us guessing with an "Ayn Rand Stacked Enchilada" special, a rare honor for one of the philosophers of conservatism. At the Downtown Grill & Brewery, all the TVs were on and drew more than 100 people, upstairs and down. At the Y, several multi-tasking joggers ran on treadmills watching live TV coverage; in the basement, about a dozen guys, mostly naked, watched the transfer of power on locker-room TVs. At Magpie's on North Central, bakers sold "Presidential Cupcakes," a combination of the Hawaiian (a pina-colada-inspired cake); Mr. Chicago, a marble cupcake with chocolate icing; and the White House, a white cake with patriotic raspberries and blueberry cream in patriotic colors.

Probably the poshest inauguration-watching party in town was at the Crowne Plaza, the Inauguration Day Celebration Brunch, a $60-a-plate dinner to honor several local pioneers of civil rights—the ones who didn't make the trip to Washington, D.C. The mixed-race assembly of more than 200 well-dressed attendees in the hotel's ballroom watched the ceremonies in Washington and stood up and cheered the inauguration of a man who, in the memory of many of those present, would not have been allowed to eat at most Knoxville lunch counters, or attend most Knoxville schools. Some, even young men, wept.

The most Washingtonian place in town is arguably the monumental Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, the new university building at the corner of Cumberland and Melrose Place. It sports lofty columns and a Jeffersonian rotunda, and faces its grand entrance away from campus onto the busy street, as if favoring the public over academia.

Outside, a folding sidewalk sign advertised it to passersby: "Watch the Inauguration Here @ 11:30."

Through the front door is a grand rotunda, where polished marble tiles in earth tones make an eight-pointed star, within which is a sculpture of the genial head of the former senator. Above are two more levels, with mezzanine galleries surrounding the space. The 83-year-old statesman keeps an office on the third floor.

In the grand rotunda, a security guard at a desk listened to the radio; the building is otherwise so quiet one might have wondered whether the event was a washout.

In the last 15 minutes of the presidency of George W. Bush, he said, "It's in there," with no one asking. He gestured to the Toyota Auditorium, just to the left. It's a modest place, as auditoriums go, a flat room about the size of a large classroom. Projectors in the ceiling display MSNBC coverage in the darkened room; blinds shut out the bright noonday sun so thoroughly that at first they appear to be patterned wallpaper. The big room is standing-room only, maybe 125 people in all. More than 90 percent could have passed for college students, and one young woman seated at a table took careful notes in a spiral notebook as if attending a lecture the week before the exam. For a while, the sympathies of the crowd weren't obvious. The crowd was overwhelmingly white—there were maybe six blacks, low even for a UT crowd, but there are other inauguration-watching events on campus.

The images from the capital glowed on two different screens; for whatever reason, the entire room watched only one of them. At the bottom of the unwatched screen, three men sat watching the other screen, apparently unbothered by the fact that the same image was being projected on their faces.

The prayer brought some whispered remarks, especially the reference to "Jesus." When Aretha Franklin finished singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," there was some slight, embarrassed applause, almost as if each suddenly realized the performer couldn't hear them. You don't applaud a television set—do you?

But after Joe Biden took the oath, applause in this room at the Baker Center was sudden and enthusiastic. After that, the crowd had no self-consciousness about the matter. Barack Obama's inauguration drew a bigger cheer, and another as he was introduced as president.

One young couple didn't applaud. The man shook his head grimly, as if maybe he was expecting a different outcome from the broadcast.

About a third of the room stayed to hear Elizabeth Alexander's poetry and the Rev. Joseph Lowery's invocation. By the time the talking heads were offering analyses on the two big screens, 45 minutes after the oaths, only one older woman stood in the Toyota Auditorium, and she seemed to be tarrying just for politeness' sake.

The suddenly empty building afforded one curious citizen an opportunity to look around at this $17 million, 53,000-square-foot building. It's a lovely building on the inside, with its circular galleries hung with some of Baker's own photographs; classes were underway on the second floor, which also includes some major archives of Baker and other Tennessee politicians, including former Senators Estes Kefauver, Fred Thompson, and Bill Brock. A second-floor balcony, a feature common in many of Washington's public buildings of the 19th century, but missing from almost public buildings today, is real—but, sensibly, it remains locked on a cold day.

The museum, a monument within a monument, honors the career of former U.S. Senator Baker, who was also, for a time, President Reagan's chief of staff. It's a modern and well-appointed exhibit very much in the style of several museums in Washington, of Baker's life and times and is called, optimistically, "The System Works: Participating in the American Republic." Though Republicans dominate, as you might expect, it's an interesting bipartisan exhibit about a politically complicated state, with nods to Democratic heroes Kefauver, Cordell Hull, and even Harold Ford, by way of a Corn Flakes box that honored him. Today it's completely empty, as you might expect. Anyone much interested in a former senator's career likely has a passing interest in what a new president has to say.

The Baker Center is, as longtime executive director Alan Lowe states in a promotional story of the project, an educational and research institution, but also a place for citizens at large to get a handle on their government. He wanted, he said, "to show the community that we can be a resource for them. We want to engage with them, and we want them to engage with us."

It was a strange day for the Baker Center, in the context of this unusually triumphant Democratic inauguration viewing, one of the most popular events yet held in the Toyota Auditorium. The announcement had come the previous evening that Lowe, who's been director of the Baker Center for six years, throughout the planning and construction of this landmark building, has accepted a new challenge—as director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas.

Out in the cold streets, it was sunny and quiet, a Tuesday afternoon quieter than a Sunday. Few were on the sidewalks on Cumberland, and even downtown. One exasperated restaurateur asked, "Tell me, where is everybody?" Kevin Bradley, the maverick printer whose Barack the Vote posters were drawing attention more than a year ago, emerged on the sidewalk in his trademark mismatched plaids, and shouted upwards in the canyon of Gay Street, "New president!" Someone high above opened a fourth-floor window on this frigid day, and shouted, "Yow! New president!"

And then, as the flurries returned, it was back to work.