Obama’s second act draws a smaller but spirited crowd

A chanting, flag-waving crowd — not as large as four years ago, not as optimistic, but still brimming with energy — filled the Mall on Monday from the Capitol to the Washington Monument to witness the ceremonial inauguration of President Obama.

Trooping in in chilly weather and clad in scarves, trapper hats and furs, they had traveled by plane, car and Metro to see the nation’s first African American president start a second term.

Against a landscape of bare trees and red, white and blue bunting, they came carrying children on their shoulders, pushing the sick and elderly in wheelchairs, and bearing innumerable cups of coffee.

It was not the gigantic, jubilant throng of 2009 that jammed Washington, thrilled with the historic nature of Obama’s first inauguration.

But it was a huge crowd of hundreds of thousands of joyous people — extraordinary for a traditionally subdued second inauguration.

President Obama delivers remarks at the 57th presidential inauguration on Monday. (The Washington Post)

“I was as moved this time as I was last time,” Julie Jackson-Murphy, 46, of Atlanta said as she stood, still waving two American flags after the ceremony.

“We were crying before he even spoke,” she said. “It just still seems surreal. It was the solemnity and culmination of it all.”

People sang and cheered near the steps of the Capitol, congregated at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and stopped to reflect at the Lincoln Memorial, two miles from the inaugural platform.

They listened as the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” penned in Washington 150 years ago, and they heard the president say they were all made for this moment in history.

And they heard Beyonce, James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson sing during the ceremonies.

But some of the patience and exuberance of 2009 seemed to be gone. The crowd fumed over congestion, as people migrated en masse to the Mall and the Metro system, and to the parade route, even though the hassles were far less severe than four years ago.

Busy bathrooms, transit problems and a major Jumbotron meltdown also left people angry and frustrated.

“Last time it was a bigger crowd, more energy. We had to get past the shock, the disbelief,” said Charlene Gumbs, 36, of New York City. “This time it’s not a novelty.”

Event organizers said about 1 million people descended on the Mall and parade route — far less than the 1.8 million estimated by the city in 2009.

“Even though the crowds are large, it’s nowhere in comparison” to four years ago, Washington Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.

The National Park Police declared the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument full a little before noon and guided the spillover to the grounds of the Washington Monument.

There, the biggest glitch of the day unfolded, as the big screen set up to broadcast the action malfunctioned, leaving hundreds of frustrated spectators.

“Boo!” shouted several people standing along the fenced perimeter of the monument.

“Ugh. Are we going to have to go watch this in Starbucks or something?” one woman said.

“We’re going home to watch it,” said Kathy Farrell, 54, of the District, who was there with visitors from Pennsylvania.

“We’re extremely disappointed. We’re just hoping to get home in time to see it on TV.”

Several Metro stations were jammed with flustered visitors.

At Foggy Bottom, a line stretched along 23rd Street NW as hundreds of people waited to enter the station. “We feel like cattle,” said Lindsay Carless, a senior at Oakland University in Michigan. “This is overwhelming.”

Michelle Chandler of San Antonio didn’t have a bad trip into the city Monday morning, but she said she couldn’t believe the situation in the afternoon.

“I hate people,” she said, waiting down the block from Foggy Bottom. “I was expecting some holdup, but not like this.”

Then and now

In most ways, things appeared to proceed without too much trouble, and the weather, which was cold and breezy initially, grew warmer as the day went on and the sun appeared.

By late afternoon, though, even as the president and first lady walked past delirious parade watchers, shadows lengthened and the chill returned. Sunset found people taking last-minute snapshots at the Lincoln Memorial as the light faded to pink.

Some of those present said they had been here for the 2009 inauguration and felt compelled to return.

Others had missed the first one. “God gave me a second chance,” said Betty Thomas, 62, who with her sister-in-law, Rosie Thomas, had bused in from Indiana and Michigan.

“This is a piece of my history,” said Jennifer Shorkey, 24, of Saginaw, Mich., who had taken a 12-hour bus ride from Saginaw Valley State University. It was her first trip to Washington.

“This election was my first time voting,” she said. “So this isn’t just [American] history. . . .Voting for the first time, then seeing it happen in real life.”

Zan and Charlie Thompson, in their 60s, had come for the second time from Phoenix — she pushing him in a wheelchair because of a bad knee.

“We just put our little change together and made it,” she said. “He just hurt his knee and he can’t walk, so it was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to push you then.’ ”

Zan Thompson said they came to Washington because they wanted to “see what’s next. We’ve had four years. [The president’s] acclimated. He understands more than he did [at] this time four years ago. And I’m just excited about the future.”

Other attendees were not Americans but had come to see the wonder of an inauguration. Riyaz Sayed, 41, a human resources manager from India, said it had been his “lifetime dream” to watch an American president take office.

Obama “is the most powerful person on Earth, and people all over the world who have never met him, even my parents back in India, have such hope in him,” he said.

Anissa Tria, a World Bank employee from the Philippines, and Alexandre Alves, a high school teacher visiting from Brazil, met in the bleachers across from the White House and quickly discovered that they shared a common American hero.

“If I could have voted, it would have been for Obama,” said Tria, who set her alarm for 6 a.m. to get to the inauguration in time. “This isn’t my country, but I want what’s best for America.”

Here and there

Thelma Lett, 67, and Mary Chatman, 60, came by plane and bus from Dallas. Lett said she had been in Washington four years ago but didn’t see much because she had to leave early.

“People just don’t seem to be as kindhearted as they used to be,” she said before the inauguration, as she stood at 16th and I streets NW. “Our forefathers, I think their intent was to move the country ahead. Now it seems like everybody’s interested more in self, even our fantastic politicians.”

“Fantastic today,” she said “but we’ve got to think about tomorrow.’

Others were just happy to be there.

Monday was Cindy Johns’s 54th birthday.

Two weeks ago Johns was finishing up her final round of chemotherapy. She’d lost her hair and was prone to “chemo brain,” the fuzzy fog that envelops cancer patients, she said.

But she knew exactly where she wanted to be on Jan. 21 — in Washington for the inauguration.

“She got some wigs so she could come out,” said her husband , Mike Johns, 52.

The Johnses live in Columbus Grove, Ohio. He works in a factory that builds Whirlpool appliances, and she has an online company designing greeting cards.

She said she likes Obama’s approach to solving problems, and his quick mind.

“I think he’s going to end up the greatest president this country’s ever had,” she said. “I know an awful lot of people don’t believe that.”

Last Wednesday, Cindy Johns’s doctor said she appears to have beaten her cancer — her second bout in 15 years. The Johnses divided their drive into two, stopping to see their daughter in Pittsburgh.

Cindy Johns is still weak, and she used a cane and a wheelchair that she occasionally sank into at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW while waiting for the parade.

“Nothing could stop me from being here,” she said.

During the big day, a few people got lost in the crowd and then were found.

One of the lost was Augusta Bone of Alabama.

“My granddaughter is around here somewhere,” she said as she enjoyed a moment of peace in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The president’s inaugural address was over, but Bone, who declined to give her age, was in no rush to join the people trying to reach the parade route or find their way off the Mall.

“It’s a momentous occasion,” said Bone, who said she was sick in 2009 and regretted missing Obama’s first inauguration.

“With the first inauguration, the plan was to be disruptive,” she said. “Now, it’s the people’s desire to come together. . . . It’s not about whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. It’s about being a citizen of the United States and wanting the best for this country.”

Along the parade route, Terry Manago, 45, of Washington waited with her family for the president’s motorcade to pass.

Manago, who is African American, hoisted her 8-year-old daughter, Ava Cumberbatch, onto her husband’s shoulders and handed the girl a camera.

Manago then lifted daughter Maci Cumberbatch, 5, onto her shoulders so the child could see.

“My children were born, and the first president they ever knew was a president who looked like them,” Manago said.

“We just want our children to know they can achieve and do anything,” she said. “[Obama] is a perfect example of that, and that’s why we’re here.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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