Millions watched with calm — and euphoria — as history is made

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

US NEWS INAUGURATION 128 MCT

Barack Obama takes the oath as the 44th U.S. President from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, January 20, 2009. (Win McNamee/Pool/MCT)

WIN MCNAMEE — MCT

WASHINGTON — As he addressed the nation on Tuesday for the first time as president, Barack Obama looked out over a National Mall where millions listened in a setting that was both electric and serene.

Electric because looking west from the tall white platform in front of the Capitol dome, Obama saw an unbroken mass of humanity stretching the mile and a half down to the Washington Monument, and beyond. He and first lady Michelle Obama waved to the crowd and watched thousands wave back with their little American flags, creating a blinding red white and blue ocean accented by the bright, piercing sun.

There was also an unusual serenity to the day, because so many had waited so long to see the inauguration of an African-American as president. As Obama said in his inaugural address, a man "whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

The sense of calm had other roots: People knew that Tuesday could be a line of historic demarcation. New presidents taking office in times of grave crisis get special opportunities to rally and reinvigorate their troubled countries.

And so, despite the biting cold and the swarms of people around every downtown subway stop, sandwich shop and security checkpoint, Washington had a feeling far different than any in memory. People were friendly, positive — and, since this was, after all, a celebration, giddy.

Doug Jennings, a state legislator from Bennettsville, S.C., had the word "hope" shaved into his short, graying hair on Monday.

"It kind of symbolizes what Obama is all about," Jennings said. "And I don't have enough hair for more than one word."

The day began with temperatures under 20 degrees. Lines formed in dark suburban parking lots as early as 3:30 a.m. People stretched for blocks outside Maryland's New Carrollton subway station, which opened half an hour later; once they got downtown, nearly 5,000 people waited for security clearance near the Labor Department in northwest Washington.

They were America, 2009, impossible to easily characterize. They were young and old, black and white. Some were dressed in their finest, while most were bundled up in parkas or heavy coats.

They kept coming. By 9 a.m. — still three hours before the swearing-in — alerts went out that the Mall was full east of the Washington Monument, and that people still working their way downtown should aim farther west. Along city streets, suddenly ubiquitous vendors sold Obama belt buckles, calendars, magnets, laptops — and cold weather gear.

The biggest seller: Something etched with Jan. 20. "People want to buy stuff with today's date because it is a historic day," said vendor Joe Oglesvy of Baltimore.

Nothing would deter the throngs. Most folks, particularly black spectators, many of whom were awed by the idea that an African-American was being inaugurated president, had very personal stories to tell.

Terdema Ussery, the chief executive of the HDNet cable network, took his seat in front of the Capitol at 6 a.m., six hours before the swearing-in.

"We just want to experience this," to sit and soak in the history and the mood, he said.

James Bradford, a government affairs manager for a paper company, recalled seeing his father shot during a 1965 civil rights protest in his hometown, Jonesboro, La.

Yvette Alexander, a Baton Rouge, La., city court judge, recalled how "We used to say 'You can be anything you want, even president of the United States,' but we didn't really believe it in our hearts."

She thought about her father_ "probably three generations removed from slavery, so he was Obama's biggest naysayer." But, Alexander said, "I think he's happy to be wrong this time.

Celebrities were star-struck, too.

Actor Dustin Hoffman looked at the mall and called it "judgment day," when America was ratifying its faith in the new president. Actor Denzel Washington felt he just had to be at the Capitol.

"It's nice, it's natural, it's comfortable," he said of Obama. "It's his time."

The swearing-in program ran about 15 minutes late, but no one complained. In keeping with Obama's desire to put aside partisan rancor, the crowd was polite even to those it was not eager to embrace. President George W. Bush got virtually no response; Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren got scattered applause, though the choice of the California minister to deliver the invocation was criticized in many Democratic quarters because of his support of the state's Proposition 8, which bars gay marriage. Voters narrowly passed the measure in November.

After Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts administered the oath, the crowd erupted with elation. Strangers hugged one another. Some just stood and stared, tears gently rolling down their faces.

For Virginia Tillett, of Manteo, N.C., the moment was proof that the American dream works. "Our parents told us we could do and be anything," said the Dare County, N.C., commissioner, "and we believed them. It took all these years for Barack to be here, but deep down we all knew he would be here."

Obama quickly got down to business in his inaugural address, getting his biggest applause lines for warnings to terrorists, vows to remake America and references to America overcoming racism. When he was done, he got an enthusiastic standing ovation, and people were slow to leave.

Normally stone-faced Capitol police pointed people to the exits, urging them to have a nice day. The VIPs went inside, and were jarred briefly when Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was taken from the hall after suffering a seizure. The 76-year-old lawmaker has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

Those he left behind ate a meal designed to reflect the tastes of Obama hero Abraham Lincoln: Pheasant and duck served with sour cherry chutney and molasses sweet potatoes, and an apple cinnamon sponge cake with a sweet cream glaze for dessert.

Outside as the shadows grew long, the masses line the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue, and cheered — and screamed — as the Obamas briefly left their limousine to walk and wave.

The scene was another in a tapestry of sometimes memorable, sometimes humble moments that left Michael Fields, of Catlett, Va., quietly inspired.

"I can't even describe it," Fields said of his feelings. Obama "just has a way of saying what needs to be said, not because it sounds good but because it needs to be said. I feel like I could fly to the moon right now."

(Chris Adams, Erika Bolstad, Warren P. Strobel, William Douglas, Lesley Clark, Halimah Abdullah and Tony Pugh contributed to this article.)

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