What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate


One of my favorite movie lines of all time is from Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” That was certainly the case here in Washington during yesterday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama.

When it comes to attending Presidential inaugurations, I’m a professional. I’ve been to several swearing in ceremonies, parades and inaugural balls since I first moved to Washington in 1988. For me, it doesn’t matter who is getting sworn in, it’s just great to be part of history.

Given the nightmarish estimates that at many as 4-5 million people might attend President Obama’s inauguration, I realized pretty quickly that it was unlikely I could score both swearing in tickets and parade tickets. I opted for the parade because  I knew I could watch the ceremony on my cell phone’s TV while I waited in the parade viewing stand.

While my friend and I arrived at the security gate at 7th and E Sts. NW before 6:00 a.m., that wasn’t enough time to get through. After 3 hours of waiting, we ended up going to another gate, only to find out that there was a water main break on 7th St. which meant that the gate would not be opened.

O.K., except that no one with the Secret Service, the Metropolitan Police or other law enforcement agency told anything to the approximately 9,000 people gathered at the 7th St. gate for those 3 hours.

No bullhorn. No signage. No nothing. Thousands of people waiting in the cold for nothing.

By the time we made it to yet a third gate, there wasn’t enough time for us to get through security and find our seats before the swearing in ceremony would start. Instead, we opted to walk back to my friend’s house and watch the swearing in ceremony and parade on TV. My cousins who flew in from Kentucky had a similar experience. They also couldn’t use the tickets I bought on their behalf. All total, I wasted $150 on this logistical nightmare.

Apparently, thousands of people had the same experience trying to use tickets for the swearing in ceremony as well as for the parade.

Here’s what was missing: information and organization.

People were well prepared to wait patiently. But why didn’t a police officer share on a bullhorn that the water main break meant the gate would never open? That little bit of information would have meant that all of those people would have moved on to another entrance.

Why didn’t organizers have separate security lines for ticket holders? Instead, people without tickets clogged security, shutting out those like me who, in the case of the parade, paid for a seat. Would it have been that difficult to have two lines at each check point? What was the point of paying for the seats in the first place if they Secret Service was going to shut down the parade viewing area before those with tickets were seated?

Why didn’t the security gates open earlier? I was walking through the Capitol Hill neighborhood at 5:00 in the morning yesterday and LOTS of people were up. Opening security before 7:00 a.m. would have helped a great deal.

Tonight, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies apologized for shutting out ticket holders at the swearing in ceremony, but I’ve not seen anything from the Presidential Inaugural Committee for their role in the parade ticket snafu.

Isn’t it ironic that the inauguration for one of the most effective communicators ever to be elected President would be such a collossal failure at communication?

Apparently the communication was so bad that the PR shop at the Secret Service is saying everyone went perfectly. Um, that’s not what I witnessed first hand and the Washington Post needs only to read the comments to other stories on their website to know that the Secret Service spokesman doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

I’m doubtful that I can get my money back. Before leaving the line at 11:30 a.m., I gave my tickets to two people in the crowd hoping that they could make in. My only request was that they volunteer for the amount of time equal to $25 of their time. In that way, perhaps some good will come out of my very disappointing day.

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One response to “What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

  1. How disappointing, John! It sounds like quite a nightmare. The more I thought of it, the more it seemed like too big a job for ANY government agency to successfully pull through. I had very low expectations, which is one of the reasons I chose to not even try. Wish it weren’t so!

    Maybe you can get a job helping them out for next time – sound like you would give them good leadership and ideas! 🙂

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