The day when political Washington could finally unclench its jaw after months of pent-up tension -- a day for gloating or gloom, feverish spinning, bloggy celebrations of "Fitzmas," contemplations of the (allegedly) fallen mighty -- began humbly enough.

In one of his first on-the-record acts after a two-year investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald rearranged the courtroom furniture. He saw there weren't enough big black rolling chairs at the prosecution table in Courtroom 4. He began wheeling them over one by one.

After pulling four chairs over to the table, Fitzgerald waxed more loquacious than he had in two years.

"I think we're okay."

After that, things started happening very quickly. The dozens of reporters staking out the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse got their first new facts in a long time: A grand jury had indicted Scooter Libby on five felony counts that included perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. The top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney was looking at 30 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines if convicted and sentenced to the maximum possible.

Aftershocks rippled seismically from the courthouse on Constitution Avenue, to the White House, the Justice Department, around the city and the country, on this bad day for the Bush administration, and this very, very bad day for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

By the time prosecutors made it from the courthouse to the Justice Department, four blocks away, at 1:30 p.m., about 45 minutes after announcing the charges, they could look up at the television screen in the Justice lobby playing CNN and learn more news: Libby had already resigned and left the White House.

It was one of those days to scrutinize the staged comings and goings of the powerful men who run this country. "I'm going to have a very good day," Karl Rove declared to reporters upon leaving for work, and he gave that chipper grin he had offered all week to photographers staking out his house in Northwest.

President Bush left the White House for a morning hop to Norfolk to address military personnel, and on his way out the door he gave an odd half-smile. Was it a pained grin? A playful one?

He came back shortly after noon. Marine One approached the South Lawn of the White House a minute ahead of schedule. About 30 yards south of the helipad, a small bulldozer was parked next to a mound of dirt, apparently in the midst of digging a giant hole. It all made for an odd juxtaposition: Marine One, a loud and imposing symbol of presidential potency, descending from behind the Washington Monument and into what looked like a grave.

Farther down Pennsylvania Avenue and around a corner, there was disorder in the court.

Reporters wanted to be in exactly the right spot in U.S. District Court when Fitzgerald publicly pulled the pin on his prosecutorial hand grenade. They wanted to absorb the full blast. But where?

On the third floor, one group staked out the grand jury room.

On the second floor, another group of scribes and television producers and sketch artists camped in Courtroom 4.

On the first floor, another group waited outside the clerk's office.

For more than an hour, rumors fueled by competitive paranoia and bad cell phone connections periodically drove the groups to stampede from one location another. The courthouse resembled the stage of a British farce, with herds of reporters dashing off stage left, then reappearing stage right, and rushing off again, with pointless industry.

Finally at 12:21 in Courtroom 4, Fitzgerald did his moving man routine. Then the grand jury filed in. They were a group of 19 -- more women than men, more blacks than whites. They were silent and watchful, dressed well, except for one man in a sweat shirt. They were citizens -- a grand jury of peers -- and they were also, after two years of close study, leading experts in this twisting case.

And these ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury felt lied to.

It was Libby's alleged misstatements to the grand jury that formed the basis for the two perjury charges.

This first, fleeting glimpse of the panel was but a formality, over in minutes.

Besides the reporters, lawyers, judge and grand jury, sitting in the front row was a sole representative of that species known as the General Public. John Cooper, 32, an out-of-work lawyer from Alexandria, said he was just passing by the courthouse after researching a job at the Library of Congress, and he saw all the television trucks. He was interested enough to come in but -- remarkably! -- he had not been obsessing over this case and was not pulling for or against the officials under investigation.

"I didn't want or not want someone to be indicted," Cooper said. "I've been obsessively looking for a job."

The scene shifted to a ground floor corridor near the clerk's office where Fitzgerald's representatives pulled copies of the indictments and a news release out of cardboard boxes. They handed them to the reporters' clutching hands like bread to the starving. The television people sprinted to the plaza outside to begin reading, live, to the world.

"I. Lewis Libby today was indicted. . ."

" . . . knowingly and corruptly . . ."

" . . . on or about June 12, 2003 . . ."

Eavesdropping on all melodramatic media intoning was Larry Durstin, 58, a writer from Cleveland. He planned a trip to Washington to be here when the indictments landed. "I've been following this case so closely, I wanted to be here when history is in the making," he said. "I would have liked to have seen Karl Rove indicted."

The scene shifted to Justice, where Fitzgerald strode to a podium a few minutes after Cheney released a statement saying he had accepted Libby's resignation "with deep regret." Do they coordinate these things? Somebody must, in some control room somewhere.

"Good afternoon, I'm Pat Fitzgerald," the prosecutor said in a seventh floor briefing room that was clogged with about 150 reporters, cameramen and various Justice staffers.

The special counsel talked fast, in short, clipped cadences, appearing slightly nervous at first. He had a solemn, slightly sunken face that looked at once boyish and somewhat older than his 44 years. He took the first question from NBC's Pete Williams, the spokesman for the Pentagon during Cheney's stint as defense secretary during the George H.W. Bush administration.

At that moment, as Fitzgerald discussed Libby's legal peril, Libby's former boss was demonstrating that political life and the war against terror go on, and CNN split its screen to make that clear. At Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., there was a huge flag and soldiers in camouflage garb standing cheek to jowl. As Cheney strode to the lectern, an amputee in a wheelchair in the front row clapped what was left of his arms.

"A great event," Cheney said, adding that "I'm guessing it was a little more exciting when Jessica Simpson and the Dukes of Hazzard came to visit."

"Control yourselves," the vice president added to the laughing crowd.

Out in the city, word was filtering, but slowly.

So enthralled with the case are some in Washington that it was possible to stumble on heated, detailed conversations on the subject among people who still didn't know an indictment had just landed.

Adrian Reed, a D.C. government worker, was propounding his theories on the case to two friends walking near the Judiciary Square Metro station. It was great news to him that Libby had been indicted.

"That guy Rove should have been indicted," he said. "If you live here and you don't follow what this government is doing, you need to live somewhere else."

Outside the White House, tourists with beeping digital cameras were making their own versions of the postcard view from the Ellipse -- the ideal White House, the one that never shows cracks, no matter who lives there.

Some of the tourists -- believe it or don't! -- appeared totally indifferent to the indictment. "I don't even know who he is," said a man in shorts and a baseball cap.

John McGregor, 50, who works in video production in Green Bay, Wis., thought the news was "great. I hope it's the beginning of things to come for this administration. . . . I was wanting Rove really bad."

On the Pennsylvania Avenue side, there was more indifference, and puzzlement.

"Much ado about nothing," said Harry Cure, 68, a retiree from Redmond, Ore. "I don't see where it's going to serve any purpose other than be a political football."

"I don't know too much about it," offered James Fournier, 25, a geographic information technician from San Diego. "I know there was a leak."

At one of the bars in the Old Ebbitt Grill, across 15th Street, diners watched CNN with the sound off, reading about the indictments in closed-captioning. It wasn't the center of attention and conversations continued about other subjects.

"I knew they were going to try something, if nothing else as an embarrassment to the president," said Gene Sprinkle, 62, a telecommunications consultant. "But as to whether there was a legitimate crime committed, I have doubts. It's almost become a witch hunt."

"I live in Mount Pleasant," said another diner who said he couldn't give his name because his wife works on a prominent political talk show. "I wish we had a grand jury impaneled to get the guy who shot the dog-walker on Irving Street. I wish they put that many resources into solving crimes that actually affect people's lives as opposed to the political class."

But Vincent Poppiti, retired chief judge of family court in Delaware, he's following the case closely. "When people at high levels of government decide to break the law -- if they have -- it's important to pay attention."

Bush himself had said something similar, pledging to fire anyone involved in leaking the name of the covert CIA operative, but that was long ago. Yesterday, the president returned to the South Lawn at 3:50 to make a brief statement before heading to Camp David for the weekend. He took a long walk from the Oval Office to a small podium and spoke for a little over a minute in brief, informal sentences, as Fitzgerald did.

"Today I accepted the resignation of Scooter Libby," he began, said, "I got a job to do," and ended with, "Pretty soon I'll be naming somebody to the Supreme Court," before walking back to Marine One.

"Mr. President, are you embarrassed?" boomed a question across the lawn.

The president stiffened visibly -- his lips, shoulders and spine. He walked alone and silently to his helicopter. A moment later, Harriet Miers climbed the stairs, too, off for a working weekend in the mountains of Maryland, a woman who had become so quickly yesterday's news.

Patrick Fitzgerald arriving at the courthouse, where he broke the long, suspenseful wait by moving chairs. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, burdened by so much more than a broken bone, exits the West Wing.