At 4:10 a.m. on Jan. 20, the second metro headed for Washington, D.C. from a Virginia suburb is nearly packed. In the last hour before dawn, the frigid air bites through the heavily bundled passengers, even inside the train. The people don’t seem to mind the cold as they whisper excitedly to each other. Though no definite words can be made out, it is as though the collective murmurings of the passengers form the name that is on everyone’s mind, the name of a man “whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant.”
The metro makes its many stops on the way into the heart of D.C., though it is too crowded for more to board. An Indian man smiles at his children as they press their noses against the windows. Two black women tighten their scarves and zip their jackets up to their chins. A few seats away, two teenaged girls speak in rapid Spanish. A ruddy-faced young man with wild hair pulled under a hood explains to his seatmate that he has traveled from Florida, having purchased his warm clothes along the way. He knows without a doubt, however, that he has not traveled the farthest.
Once inside the city limits, the voices grow louder — questions of which is the right stop, and from there, where the best place is to watch the ceremony. Still the whisper of the name lingers in the air. It is a strange name to some, perhaps not as presidential-sounding as Thomas Jefferson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it is a name, with its three melodic vowels pronounced so easily from the mouths of even young children, that has brought hope to so many: Obama.
Out in the streets of D.C., people move about in droves, circling the avenues around Capitol Hill in search of a way to the National Mall. Pennsylvania Avenue is inaccessible, in preparation for the parade festivities after the ceremony. Many of the other peripheral streets are blocked off completely by metal gates and nervous policemen. Some are open through a checkpoint, but only for people with a heavy and ornate invitation. A group of Australians call out to each other as though they are at a sports game, and one exclaims that he didn’t come this far just to watch the ceremony on TV.
The broadest mass of people yet snakes its way down K Street, several blocks north of the National Mall. The people spill out onto the sidewalk, despite feeble attempts by the police to keep pedestrians out of the street. The line stretches for more than seven long blocks, growing in size the closer it gets to the National Mall.
Though the crowds at rock concerts and sports games tend to adopt an unruly manner, this crowd was very different. The pressure was certainly felt to arrive on the National Mall in time, but not a single person shoved or jeered. The respect in the air was almost palpable as this union of people from all walks of life at last broke out onto the mall.
One last wispy barricade stood between the civilians and the mall, consisting not of metal riot gates but of a scattering of emphatic protestors. They brandished large signs with epithets like, “Only Jesus Saves” and “God is Hope, not Obama.” Compared to the 10-degree wind chill and the cramped space, it was no match for the energy of the crowd. After all, this is the place that everyone has been trying to get to. From waiting in lines at airports and train stations to renting cars and booking hotels, people had at last arrived at their destination.
From the base of the Washington Monument, spectators can see all the way down the mall to the front of the capital, whose façade is dressed in red and blue banners for the occasion. By 10 a.m., every inch of solid ground from as far back as the Lincoln Memorial to the very front of the capital is covered with people. Giant jumbotron screens show what is happening on the portico where the swearing in will take place. The crowd cheers as members of the three branches of government appear from within. Camera crews make their way through the people and they cheer and smile for the microphones and lenses.
From the jumbotrons, the crowd sees Vice President Cheney wheeled out onto the portico. With no sympathy at all, boos issue from the crowd, and suddenly the nation’s second-in-command appears haggard and villainous. The screen soon shows President Bush, who receives an even louder series of boos. Bush holds his head high, and with a thin-lipped grimace he and his weary-eyed wife take their seats. Whether they heard the booing or not is unknown, but in this case they didn’t need to hear anything to know just how the crowd felt about them.
When the man of the hour at last arrives, the crowd cheers in excitement. His face is stoic and focused, perhaps with a hint of determination, as though the understanding of his recent employment as president of the United States is finally setting in.
People are jogging in place and jumping up and down, huddling together in efforts to stay warm. The sunlight is welcome, though it does little to warm the icy air. The jumbotrons depict the flurry of formalities that follow, with songs and salutes and speeches. The botched swearing in of Mr. Obama by a nervous Justice Roberts receives an uncomfortable laugh from the crowd, but as he is declared the 44th president of the United States, the entire mall erupts in a wave of cheers, waving flags, and people embracing all around.
Barack Obama looks out upon the hundreds of thousands of people who have assembled before him. A burden, perhaps — now that they have all bestowed their trust on him to do what he thinks is best for the country. But as he gives his first speech as President Obama, what stands out is the undeniable trace of faith that he has not just in himself, but also in the American people. Faith in deepest fibers of every person who has lived in America, whether they be new to this soil or not. Faith in our ancestors, who have fled from tyranny and injustice in order to brave new worlds and new territories for the sake of happiness and equality.
The speech is not poetic, nor does it use the soaring language many expected. But it is powerful nonetheless, steady-handed and imploring, gracious and dignified. His words bring tears to the cheeks of the crowd, cheeks that are young and old and in every skin color you can imagine. President Barack Obama takes the hands of his wife and children, a smile finally breaking across his face. The new first family waves to the crowd, and the crowd waves back.