President Barack Obama had finished taking the oath of office. The band started “Hail to the Chief.” And the crowd — if that’s what you call a turnout of this size — burst into cheers.
Then those around me started chanting “Obama! Obama!” as the man next to me grabbed his video camera and kissed his wife.
“Well, it has happened,” said the man, matter of factly, because what other words, really, can describe a time like this? It was director Ron Howard, whom I didn’t recognize because, like just about everyone else, he was bundled up in a coat, hat and gloves. Trekking for blocks and blocks through the Capitol Hill neighborhood to get here, Howard brought with him his wife, Cheryl; his father, Rance; and Rance’s wife, Judy.
This inauguration has been like no other, defined by superlatives. There’s the media coverage, the entertainment, the parties, even the marketing. (Pepsi has ads throughout the city with the slogan “Yes, You Can.”) It is all in the name of collectively witnessing a national moment.
Perhaps because such instances are so rare these days, we forget that it actually takes a certain level of endurance to witness history in person.
As awe-inspiring as it was seeing the crowds on the Mall, there was the intricate matter of actually getting them there, and the utter confusion of it all. Some of Obama’s campaign workers were livid that they could not get in even though they had tickets. As much of a media presence as there was, the sheer volume of wireless device use made text messaging next to impossible.
On Monday night, inauguration eve, patience appeared to be wearing thin. Partygoers groused about not being able to get from one venue to another. Because so many streets were clogged or barricaded, taxi drivers would agree only to drop off many passengers at the nearest Metro stop. Outside the Huffington Post pre-inaugural gala at the Newseum, anxious guests pressed against the doors, as guards tried to push them back so an entrance could be made in an orderly manner.
“Three steps back!” the guard shouted at the waiting crush, which included “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry and star Teri Hatcher.
Inside, Robert De Niro waded his way through a VIP area, but clearly he’d had it with the attention. Asked by a reporter what he thought of Barack Obama, he said, “What do you think?”
But the mood was considerably different early Tuesday morning. A jubilation settled in among inaugural-goers.
On one packed Metro train headed to downtown D.C., a man boarded and shouted, “Obama express! It’s about time!”
Passengers exiting at Capitol South — on the south side of the Capitol grounds — were greeted by a massive throng just waiting to exit up the escalators. Soon the video cameras were out to record that scene, even a subway employee telling the crowd on a megaphone to push forward.
“This is the most attention I have ever had. I love it!” she said, beaming.
By 7:30, the line for orange tickets — which entitled one to an actual seat — already wound around a small pocket park in several zigzags.
One woman, a Senate staffer, said she stayed in her office overnight rather than go home to Virginia. Next to her was an accountant from Washington who stood shaking his hand warmers to get more heat out of them as he explained why he was putting up with it all.
“Racism is America’s original sin, and Barack Obama is John the Baptist,” he said.
Once the gates opened, it took only about another hour to make it through. At 9 a.m., many peered down the Mall to see it packed at least to the Washington Monument and professed themselves grateful to at least have a ticket.
As people took their seats, the full weight of what was before them was clear. Look one way and the Mall and its inhabitants seemed to shimmer in the morning sun. Look the other way, and it was the majesty of the Capitol as the Marine Band played selections of John Philip Sousa and Aaron Copland.
Jamie Foxx, who, like Howard, was in the orange-seating area, spoke of this day being one “without celebrity” — he sat bundled up along with everyone else — although he was pressed to pose for pictures and headed over to Magic Johnson to pose for one of his own. Also in this mix were Tom Hanks and Jon Bon Jovi.
Howard said he allowed himself to wonder whether the weekend marked a turning point and perhaps represented the “death of cynicism,” particularly during Sunday’s inaugural kickoff concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which also drew a massive turnout. As he admitted, it is hard to talk in such terms without sounding too cliched. But Howard’s most recent pic, “Frost/Nixon,” pretty much says it all about what we have come to expect from political culture.
As the swearing-in ceremony approached, the crowd weighed in as the names of dignitaries were called, or when their faces appeared on a giant video screen. Colin Powell elicited applause; Joseph Lieberman got some boos.
And then there was President George W. Bush, in his final moments in office. As his face appeared onscreen, a hum could be heard from the masses on the Mall. It suddenly became clear. It was “Goodbye,” as in “Nah Nah Nah Nah. Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye ….”
In fact, when Obama, at the start of his inaugural address, thanked President Bush for his “service to our nation,” one man just to the back of me shouted, “Whatever.”
Reactions to his speech were tempered by the fact that winter gloves muffle the sound of clapping, and his voice echoed as it was amplified on speakers down the length of the Mall. So when Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the first part of the oath of office, it was hard to tell what happened.
When it was all over, the atmosphere was strangely muted. Maybe it was a function of fatigue settling in, or of the stately surroundings. Or because there was no more reason to scurry about.
“It is hard even to put into words; it is such an awesome moment,” Elizabeth Pearson Walker, a semi-retired management consultant from near Houston, said as Bush’s helicopter flew off over the Capitol grounds. Her father predicted when she was growing up that an African-American would one day occupy the Oval Office. “That this transition has occurred in my lifetime, that I lived to see a black family in the White House, I cannot even express what it means.”
She was not alone.