A day for the everyday people

They're all smiles, two because they're staying, two because they're leaving: The Obamas escort the Bushes, after the inauguration, to the Marine I helicopter waiting behind the Capitol to take the former president and first lady on the first leg to their new home.
They're all smiles, two because they're staying, two because they're leaving: The Obamas escort the Bushes, after the inauguration, to the Marine I helicopter waiting behind the Capitol to take the former president and first lady on the first leg to their new home.
Posted: January 21, 2009

THE WORLD changed in 28 seconds yesterday.

The epicenter of that change was atop the steps of the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, where Barack Obama took the oath of office as America's 44th president - becoming the first black man to lead a 232-year-old nation with racial unrest embedded in its very DNA.

But the raw force of the moment seemed to send tremors across Washington's National Mall as American flags rippled like red, white and blue waves of grain amid more than 1.5 million citizens in a once-in-a-lifetime emotional civic outpouring.

And the aftershocks were felt around the world - from African villages where goats were slaughtered in honor of the 47-year-old son of a Kenyan immigrant, to isolated outposts across South America where workers were given time off to watch a historic moment thousands of miles away.

While yesterday may have been a moment in time for Obama and his family to finally move into the White House after a hard-fought election victory and eight contentious years of George W. Bush, it really was a day for the everyday people - of a nation, and a planet.

It was a day for folks like 77-year-old Ted Roberts, who watched police take down civil-rights marchers with fire hoses in his native Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, but yesterday was handing out American flags to a large celebratory throng gathering at that city's Boutwell Auditorium.

"I never thought it would come," he said of the day's events.

"I am painfully aware of the fact that I went to sleep in a country that's different than the one we woke up in today," said Aaron Burroughs, a 37-year-old African-American waiter at a Burlington, Vt., restaurant mobbed with people watching Obama on six giant TV screens.

Hundreds also came out here in Philadelphia under a January chill to see the inauguration on big screens set up at Independence Mall. The local celebrants stood a stone's throw from where delegates in 1787 crafted a U.S. Constitution that paved the way for an orderly transition of power - but didn't resolve the battles over slavery and civil rights, the echoes of which were heard yesterday.

Indeed, the landmark day was so filled with overlapping reverberations - the legacy of the civil-rights stuggles of the 1950s and 1960s, our bitter politics of the 2000s, and the historic tradition dating back to the 18th century - that it was hard to know where one started and another left off.

A large number of the most overjoyed were African-Americans who never thought they'd live to see a black president in a nation where interracial marriages like Obama's parents' were still illegal in 21 states when the new president was born in Honolulu in 1961. Many wept as Obama arrived at the Capitol ceremony or when Aretha Franklin, who emerged in the 1960s from her riot-torn hometown of Detroit, sang "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)."

"As a mother of a mixed-race child, this day is special to me," Esa Martel, who set her alarm for 2 a.m. so her family could claim a space on Washington's mall, told the Christian Science Monitor. "Instead of them being looked down on, it shows that the world is coming around to accepting people."

But some of the excitement was not so much at the ascension of the first black president as at the arrival of a new commander-in-chief, period, after eight years that included a lethal and controversial war in Iraq, the botched response to a deadly Gulf Coast hurricane and, finally, an economic meltdown.

People in the giant throng sang "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!" as Bush's Marine One helicopter soared past the White House en route to Texas.

Indeed, much of Obama's day seemed aimed at convincing the nation and the world that he plans to validate their deeply held desire for change. Although the new president did thank Bush for his service at the start of his 20-minute speech, much of it was a thinly disguised assault on the policies of the 43rd president.

Some of his pointed words seemed a reference to the Bush administration policies at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and elsewhere that the ex-president's critics consider akin to torture.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said. "Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations."

But Obama also indicated that he hopes to channel that positive energy reflected by so many waving flags and hoarse voices toward a difficult mission: Undoing what he suggested was an irresponsible culture that helped usher in the current financial mess, that made America the world's largest debtor nation.

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task," he said.

The Obama inauguration ceremony was a unique hybrid in which such a radical change was wrapped tightly in the mantle of American tradition that began in the era of George Washington, whose long winter at Valley Forge Obama invoked in a closing quote from the Revolutionary-era writer Thomas Paine.

The former Illinois senator took the oath of office on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and he looked out across the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. He spoke of the great American military struggles from Concord to Gettysburg, and from Normandy to Khe Sahn.

But the inauguration also honored American diversity in ways that none of the 42 presidents who came before had ever done. That was evident both in Obama's words - which included an acknowledgment of the nation's "non-believers" and a message to the Muslim world - and in a parade of entertainers as diverse as Franklin and Yo Yo Ma and pastors like the right-leaning Rick Warren and civil-rights icon Joseph Lowery.

The group that followed Obama down Pennsylvania Avenue in his inaugural parade included re-enactors from a black Civil War regiment, World War II's surviving Tuskegee Airmen and Freedom Riders who battled for civil rights in the early 1960s.

During the parade, the new president and first lady Michelle Obama delighted some of the thousands who lined the historic street by leaving their new armor-plated limousine, known as "The Beast," and walking several blocks, to shrieks from the crowd.

Authorities believe it was the largest gathering ever to attend an inauguration, possibly 1.5 million or even more. They endured not only bitter termperatures but long security lines, and yet there were no reports of any arrests.

It was that kind of day - a hopeful day, one for the regular people as much as the powerful.

"I remember the Civil Rights Act of '64. And it worked. This is it," said 62-year-old Ellen Roberts, an editor at a small publishing company in Allentown who was one of 100 people gathered at a brewpub there. "We really are a diverse nation."

As she spoke, tears rolled down her face. *

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

comments powered by Disqus