Cautionary Champagne at The Center for Constitutional Rights

On Monday, Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was quoted in a New York Times front page article about Guantanamo detainees in the Bush era: "The house of cards is finally falling down." On Tuesday, Vince Warren shared a bottle of champagne with his staff.

About forty people gathered in the 6th floor conference room to sample champagne in paper cups and watch the presidential inauguration, at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in Manhattan. The television, tuned to CNN, was flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with bound copies of "Federal Reporter," a testament to CCR's work through the years. Founded by civil rights attorneys in 1966, CCR has been leading the effort to provide legal representation to nearly all Guantanamo detainees for the last six years. It sent the first ever habeas attorney to the base, and it coordinates a network of over 500 pro bono counsel.

"This is the first time in history that we've gathered to celebrate a presidential inauguration," Warren said, elated. He added, "It probably never happened in the history of the left." The atmosphere was light. "That's a big ol' bible," someone quipped, as Biden was readied for swearing-in. "I thought this day would never come!" said another.

During Obama's oath of office, the room went silent. A table laden with potluck goodies was momentarily forgotten as no one wanted to interrupt the moment with something so quotidian as food. "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear..." and then an eruption of cheers and applause. "Wow," I heard someone shout, "Bush is no longer president!"

But this was a tough crowd; Obama was in office less than five minutes before he was booed for thanking Bush "for his service to our nation." After the ceremonies, everyone was pleased to witness Bush's departure by helicopter. "Don't let the rotor blades hit you on the way out," warned a smiling Kevin Gay, CCR's database manager.

Probably the biggest reaction was in response to Obama's nod to Americans who don't believe in God. "Our patchwork heritage is a strength," said Obama in his inaugural address; "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers." The CCR crowd whooped it up and a few shouts of "thank you!" rang out. "That was notable," someone said. "Nobody ever gives a shout-out to atheists!"

"That was a very key inclusion," agreed Vince Warren, who prior to his tenure at CCR was a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "The constitution protects nonbelievers to the same extent it protects believers; that's a very important message to send. That was an enormous step that I haven't heard before in a presidential address."

Warren thanked his staff for the work they've done under the circumstances of the last eight years: "We need to come together and focus on what the victories are," he said. "The time of waiting for that other shoe to drop -- the eight years of waiting for that other shoe to drop -- is over. It takes a tremendous toll." But he cautioned them against resting on their laurels.

And he cautioned them against relying on their hopes for the future. Don't take Obama for granted, he seemed to say. Be wary of politics as usual. "Barack Obama is going to compromise on many things that are extremely important to us. We need to be here to push this guy. If we're not pushing him, and pushing him hard, then we're not doing our job."

"Our priorities right now," Warren explained to me later, "are Guantanamo; torture and rendition; secret evidence; and then also beginning to refocus the country's attention on longstanding racial, social and economic justice." For the last eight years, CCR has been making headway in spite of Washington D.C.

I hope the champagne in paper cups wasn't for naught. Vince Warren is too gracious and circumspect to say this, but I have no shame: "Obama, make the Center for Constitutional Rights proud."