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In His Moment, Many Feel Echoes Of Their Own Stories

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In taking the oath of office as the first African American president in the nation's nearly 233 years, one man reached a singular achievement. But at four minutes after noon yesterday, Barack Hussein Obama was inevitably transformed -- no matter what happens during his administration -- from an individual, a politician, to an icon and a symbol. Here was history at its most sweeping and yet intimate.

An essential theme of his presidential campaign was that his candidacy was less about him than it was about the coming together of the people of the United States of America, as Obama ritually called it in his rolling cadence. We are the change we have been waiting for, he would proclaim, repeating the mantra so often that he left himself open to sardonic mocking. Yet that idea, more than anything he said or did, became the dominant sensibility of an extraordinary day.

With the inauguration witnessed by perhaps the largest audience ever to assemble in Washington, and with the fit young leader and his wife striding confidently down part of the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, the day, of course, was about him.

But more than that, it was about everyone out there in the crowds that stretched from the west side of the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial: every person with an individual story, a set of meanings and reference points for a moment that many thought would never happen in their lifetimes.

In his inaugural address, Obama concentrated mostly on the difficult trials to come. Drawing more on the metaphors of George Washington than of Abraham Lincoln, he evoked a figurative winter of hardship that the nation must and will endure, harking back to the uncertain revolutionary winter of 1776. The crowds, meanwhile, seemed ready and willing to stand for as many hours as it took in the literal winter, in the whipping cold of a January day, to celebrate the meaning of the moment rather than focus explicitly on the tasks ahead.

Obama's message was somber, serious and forceful, with several graceful rhetorical riffs but no attempt at lyrical exaltation. It was as though he understood that the crowd would have enough hope and joy on its own, without need of more from him. "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again," he said at one point, but his celebrators already seemed picked up about as straight and high as they could get.

On a weekend train down from New Jersey, an older black man wearing presidential cuff links, stooped with arthritis but in good voice, kept saying to the people in his car: There are all these stories. Everyone has a story. We all have stories.

And so they did yesterday. The stories were not about Obama and his own unlikely saga as the 47-year-old son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, no more than his speech was. What preoccupied people, on this day, was the connection of his reality to their own.

Patricia Lother and her childhood friend Naomi McDowell Bryant said they started crying, eyes closed, rocking in prayer, as soon as Obama opened his mouth. They are in their 70s now, one living in New York City, the other in suburban Virginia, but they grew up together in Aiken, S.C., during the era of Jim Crow segregation.

Lother carried underneath her winter bundling a folded piece of paper that held copied photos of her great-grandmother, her grandfather and her mother. From slavery through segregation to this moment on a lone page, which she clutched close, whispering to their memories as if she could tell her ancestors about what to them might have seemed like an unimaginable event.

Lillian Winrow, after taking a cross-country trip to Washington with her husband and two children from Sacramento, was overwhelmed by thoughts of her late father, Obed Rhodes, who grew up in Alabama, in Tuskegee and Mobile, and kept a single artifact of his early life as a reminder to his children of what used to be.

It was another piece of paper, crammed with small, almost illegible writing, inscrutable phrases, that represented the poll tax imposed on voters as a means of discouraging African Americans from participating in American democracy. Winrow, 42, had never dreamed of coming to an inauguration before, had never felt connected to the official history of her country, yet here she stood, looking up at a giant screen showing Obama becoming president in his black suit and red tie, that scrap of paper in her pocket linking past to present in a way that nothing else could.

The first thought that flitted through the mind of Julie Springwater when Obama became president was also of her father, she said, though for a far different reason, and from the other side of America's difficult racial history.

Springwater, 52, a white civic activist from Providence, R.I., thought of the long-ago day in her Pittsburgh childhood when, after playing in the nearby woods with a band of young boys, she walked into her house and called her father, the social worker Harry Foreman, a "nigger." She was too young to realize what she was saying, Springwater recalled, but not too young to feel her father's wrath: Never, ever, ever say that word again, he told her.

That memory did not reflect the sheer exhilaration Springwater felt because of Obama's inauguration, but it was nonetheless her first unbidden thought. "That moment made an impression on me that I've talked about ever since," she said, framed by her young daughters, Mia and Sachie, adopted Cambodians who had helped form a BOG -- Barack Obama Group -- at the Gordon School in East Providence.

The very mention of that racial slur seemed somewhat incongruous in this setting, but Springwater was not the only white American willing to confront an ugly legacy as if this were an opportunity for cleansing. Ed Baxter, who runs a center for homeless children in San Antonio with his wife, Lenna, said the reality of President Obama made him think back to a moment when he was 10, living at the Whitaker State Orphanage in Pryor, Okla., and traveled with the orphanage's boxing team to fight an all-black squad from a nearby city.

Baxter was accustomed to boxing Native Americans; he had seen people with red skin, but not black. When he asked his coach what tribe they were, the answer was that one awful word. Baxter, now 64, never forgot it, and it came back to him again yesterday. "There was a lot of prejudice then," Baxter said. "We were taught prejudice."

Mark Smith, 46, a black tractor-trailer driver who organized a busload of postal workers to come down from northern New Jersey, was another in the crowd who thought of his father as Obama took the oath of office. His dad, Russell Smith, a retired Army sergeant major who fought in Korea and Vietnam, lied about his age back in the late 1940s and enlisted at 16 so he could "escape from the oppressive racism of Mississippi," his son said.

Russell Smith, mostly confined to the Armed Forces Retirement Home off North Capitol Street, could not make the inauguration, so Mark planned to skip the parade and visit briefly with his father before heading back north.

Smith's bus had rolled into the capital in the pre-dawn darkness, joining the masses congregating in the vicinity of the Mall. "Let us in!" a crowd started chanting outside one of the gates to the parade route shortly after 7 yesterday morning, expressing a can't-wait mood that began long before sunrise. Metro trains overflowed at 4, parking lots at many outer stations were filled by 5.

Thousands upon thousands of early arrivers moved as friendly tribes toward their places of witness, the way illuminated by the slivered moon, the high-tech glistening of huge screens stationed along the vastness of the Mall and, there in the far distance, the bright white lighting of the Capitol, facing west.

Hours before the action, in a sense, and yet the assemblage was its own piece of history, not just perhaps the largest but the most diverse as well. In the morning chill around 8, an hour before the standing-room sections for the swearing-in were opened, thick lines stretched three blocks from the security gates and grew by the minute. At the same time, the no-ticket-required grass and dirt fields at the western end of the Mall filled like a humongous sea of full-color humanity. Parkas, sleeping bags, blankets, American flags, Obama hats, Obama sweat shirts.

The crowds kept coming as the president-to-be went through his traditional inaugural-morning stations of the cross. Hours flitted past, and then Obama was president.

Betsy Tomlinson, 59, a lawyer from Doylestown, Pa., had been wrapped in a sleeping bag since 7, stationed with friends directly in front of a screen near the Washington Monument. Everything had been festive, "cold but happy" for more than five hours. And then Obama appeared, Tomlinson said, and the mood began to change. She thought he looked "so royal, so presidential, in charge" and serious. And as he started to speak, she sensed a shift in disposition coming over her and the crowd around her.

"It was like, time to get serious," Tomlinson said. "The mood change was noticeable, though not in a bad way. Just, there is a lot of work to do. Let's get to work. It was sort of a reality check."

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