I was snuggled up under an afghan, home sick from school. That happened sometimes when I was in kindergarten—my daughter’s age now—when I just didn’t want to go, my stomach would hurt. My parents rarely allowed me to watch television during the day; eventually I had an hour limit that I dedicated exclusively to afternoon reruns of The Love Boat. But at age six, I didn’t even know cartoons existed, because our TV was never on during the day.
But I was home sick. And something made what was on TV special, or at least newsworthy. So many people were gathered, standing outside in the cold. Celebrating something I didn’t understand. I didn’t know who Ronald Reagan was. I didn’t know that my parents were adamantly opposed to him, liberals still on board with Jimmy Carter despite the so-called malaise. I don’t remember the speeches or prayers or national anthems. I don’t remember the momentous release of 52 American hostages from Iran, timed perfectly with Reagan’s address. But I do remember the crowds gathered on the National Mall and the big white buildings. And I remember that it was special being sick, lying on the couch, watching TV during the daytime.
It would be many years until I understood my parents’ opposition to Reagan. My parents believed in compassion and humility. My parents believed in the power of government to help the downtrodden, to provide a safety net, to ensure basic rights. My father hated paying taxes as much as the next person, but he wanted someone in office who would put that revenue not to Star Wars, but to education and health care and support to those who struggled to feed their families.
Twenty-eight years after that sick day, I was on that National Mall, one of the record-setting 1.8 million people who attended Barack Obama’s first inauguration, elated, thrilled, hopeful that we had such a decent human swearing to uphold the office of the presidency. My feet were so cold that January day. We had left Jane’s house before dawn to reserve a good spot on the Mall. We situated ourselves just behind and to the right of the Washington Monument, the proud phallus of our nation’s playground. And we stood in the cold, losing feeling in toes and fingers, but warmed by the intensity of the joy we shared with all of these many humans who were so proud that our country had done something so right and righteous in electing this African-American man.
Now I think about the impending inauguration, which will no doubt be filled with red baseball caps, and missing the great many colors and ages and abilities and religions and sexualities and genders that populated the mall that January as we felt the Great Recession sinking in. We chanted about hope and change. We knew our world was precarious, but we could only feel optimism in that moment, celebrating after the ceremony as we filed past the Lincoln Memorial, moving en masse with fellow citizens, each committed in that moment to doing all we could to capitalize on the energy of having achieved what once seemed impossible.
There will be crowds again on the National Mall this January 20, and they too will chant about change, believing that somehow the nation can restore itself to a nostalgia-fueled imagined past that was great in ways it isn’t today. Though it’s little more than interesting trivia now, it was Reagan’s 1980 campaign that first used the slogan “Make America Great Again”—long before the invention of #hashtags—promising Americans they would be better off than they were four years before.
But the kinds of change our current president-elect campaigned on offer no optimism, only anger and divisiveness. I could list the many specific fears I have regarding the new administration, but we’ve all read those lists elsewhere. My parents had fears in 1980, but I am confident they did not compare to my current ones. But maybe it is my own nostalgia for a world in which I was immune to the fears, like I hope my daughter is today, curled up on the couch, in awe of the crowds on the TV.