Well over a million people stood before Barack Obama on a freezing morning, as if to join hands with him as he crossed a historic threshold as the first black to become president of the United States of America.
The inauguration of a president is, by design, an excruciatingly precise spectacle of speech and song, poetry and prayer, but the crowd stretching for miles down the National Mall almost threw off the timing, chanting, "O-bam-a! O-bam-a! O-bam-a!" before the beaming son of a man who came from Kenya and a woman who came from Kansas.
"I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors," the 47-year-old Obama told them.
It was before the first light of dawn that people trudged to the National Mall, known informally as "America's front yard." Spectators came from every state and many foreign lands—estimates put the number as high as 1.8 million. And many, even before setting foot on the frosty, fortress-tight Capitol grounds, sported keepsake inaugural buttons boasting, "I was there."
The outgoing president, George W. Bush, was in attendance, as were former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Hollywood glitterati turned out. Teachers brought schoolchildren. And 186 members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated unit of African-Americans who fight in World War II, showed up despite their age and frailty.
The famous and not-so-famous braved 28-degree cold, jam-packed streets, and inevitable worries that something could go wrong. Something did. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts stumbled in administering the 35-word presidential oath, leading the famously eloquent Obama to pause, grinning.
The program, an exercise in pomp, circumstance, and strong-as-cement rules of protocol, otherwise unfolded flawlessly. With the oath completed, the military unleashed thundering cannon fire in a 21-gun salute. The Marine Band struck up "Hail to the Chief." And an electrified audience hooted and hollered, including a middle-aged man wearing a laminated sign around his neck. "We the people," it advised, "get our country back at noon today."
Aretha Franklin, in a resplendent silver hat, sounded out "My Country 'Tis of Thee," while raising her gloved right hand to the heavens. Itzhak Perlman so dazzled on the violin that some closed their eyes in quiet contemplation. After sounding a string of prosaic words, poet Elizabeth Alexander asked: "What if the greatest word is 'love'?" And the Rev. Joseph Lowery beseeched that "when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen." And the crowd responded, "Amen."
The world watched as "Mallapolooza" played out under sunny skies and scattered clouds, the event digitally streamed to each of the seven continents. Here, one saw eyes hungry for change, teary from the cold, and distracted by the day's sideshow—star-gazing. Celebrity-spotting was practically sport, what with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, P. Diddy, and Denzel Washington claiming seats.
Washington, in wool watch cap and jacket, spoke to reporters as he waited for the ceremony, using words that foretold Obama's own exhortations. "It's a lovely day," the actor said. "In two hours, we'll have a president who's a unifier, who will bring people together. But it's not about what he can do; it's about what we can do."
He was among the fortunate 240,000 who scored the hottest ticket on the planet for a close-in view. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the inaugural organizers, said she'd gotten 60,000 requests for the roughly 300 seats she was allotted.
America is in recession and at war—plain facts that Obama underscored—but the exuberance that greeted him at this multimillion-dollar extravaganza suggested neither. That's because if inaugurals are a triumph of the ballot over the bullet, they, too, give a quadrennial excuse to this buttoned-down enclave to party. Some showed up reporting only a couple of hours of sleep.
Amid a most public occasion, private moments. People E-mailed loved ones. Some kissed. A father stroked his son's head. A woman from San Francisco touched a pin, once worn by her grandmother, in remembrance.
Shaun Parkin, 46, of Ashburn, Va., brought his five children, the youngest of them 7 years old, and in light of the bone-chilling cold, he gave his brood a pep talk, one suitable for the million or so who were witness.
"It's not in every country that you can get this many people to celebrate a new president's swearing in," he said. "It's a rare day."