Festive Masses Converge on Mall for Obama

Inauguration volunteer Anna M. Griffin is beside herself with emotion as she greets crowds coming from Washington's Metro transit system. Video by AP
By Debbi Wilgoren and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; 5:03 PM

This was Barack Obama's day, and it was theirs, too: the people who elected him, who had waited for hours, days, years, generations to take their spot on a cold morning on the Mall to witness the swearing-in of the nation's first black president.

And when Obama took the oath of office at 12:06 p.m., standing alongside his wife and two young daughters and placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, the assembled throngs erupted in a prolonged, unfettered celebration that echoed off the marble walls of the Capitol and the grand monuments and memorials that stand sentry on America's front lawn.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over the politics of discord," Obama said in his inaugural address. ". . . The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history."

All morning, the sun's rising glow illuminated a mass of humanity -- a singing, shivering and at times solemn sea of people wrapped in layers head to toe, determined to claim a piece of history. Crowds poured through security checkpoints to lay down sleeping bags and blankets, huddling together in fur coats and down parkas, standing shoulder to shoulder and assuring one another that just being present was more important than having a great view.

In all, an estimated 1.8 million were on the Mall, federal authorities said, easily besting the inaugural record of 1.2 million who watched Lyndon B. Johnson take the oath in 1965.

Soon after Obama finished his 20-minute address, large groups left the Mall, too cold and tired to wait through inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who closed the ceremony with a benediction.

As Obama sat down to the traditional lunch with congressional leaders, public interest turned to the parade route along Pennsylvania Ave., where tens of thousands more people had gathered after checkpoints opened at 7 a.m. The start of the parade was delayed for more than an hour after Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) collapsed and the newly minted president stayed there.

Shortly before 4 p.m., Obama reached the start of the parade route in his limousine, flanked by a heavy cordon of security personnel. People pushed forward in the crowd to catch a glimpse of him, cheers rising in waves.

A block into the parade, the crowd went wild as Obama and wife Michelle left their limo and began walking -- he in a dark overcoat, she in a matching yellow coat and dress. Moments before, some in the crowd had been complaining that the procession was taking too long. Now they were jumping up and down, screaming.

"Is that him?" asked Nina McMullan, stationed at 8th Street and Pennsylvania. It's not. Not yet. But then came the Obamas. "They're walking all the way!" McMullan shouted. "They're earning their keep."

Once they passed, hundreds tried to walk and keep up with the procession, only to be stopped at a barricade two blocks later.

The Obamas got out of the limousine a second time, walking north on 15th Street, then turning left to wave to the large crowd in the final block along Pennsylvania Ave. before the White House.

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