Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tuesday was the rarest of days in Washington: partisan wrangling was mainly put aside as America swore into office its first black president, and for one brief moment of hope and optimism, Capitol Hill residents, black and white, handed out hot chocolate to shivering passers-by, who were, at least on this one day, just like them — Americans.

“I can’t even believe this,” said one elderly black woman, tears streaming down her cheeks just after Barack Obama took the oath of office. A white man next to her patted her gently on the back and said softly: “Believe it.”

But the camaraderie and good will did not extend to the men who would soon add “former” to their once lofty titles, and there remained a bubbling discontent just under the surface.

SPEECH: Obama’s inaugural address here

Obama supporters mocked former Vice President Dick Cheney with derisive laughter when he appeared on the huge TV screens by the Capitol grounds, rolling down a ramp in a wheelchair after suffering a back injury moving out of his Naval Observatory home.

“Good riddance!” one man yelled from his seat near the dais.

The day was even icier for former President George W. Bush, who was greeted with boos when he took the inaugural stage. A chant broke out somewhere along the packed Mall and soon thousands near the Capitol joined in: “Nah nah nah nah, hey hey, goodbye.” The man who had helped America weather Sept. 11 smiled stoically.

And Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic vice-presidential candidate turned independent who endorsed Sen. John McCain for president, brought a cackle of boos from the once-jovial crowd. “Traitor!” one man yelled at the giant screen.

Even the man who had come to unite all Americans could not put aside the sometimes vitriolic rhetoric that propelled him to the presidency.

“The time has come to set aside childish things,” said the Democrat who ran against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and then Mr. McCain, but who often used his campaign speeches to deride the man he sought to succeed in the White House. “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, that time has surely passed,” he said as the now-gray-haired Mr. Bush looked on.

The new president told millions, perhaps billions worldwide, that the worldview embraced by Mr. Bush is flawed. Having spent months ridiculing his predecessor for what liberals dub “cowboy diplomacy” - shoot first and ask questions later - Mr. Obama said “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. … Our power grows through its prudent use.”

And taking aim at the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that many Democrats charge is torture, Mr. Obama said: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. … Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Although hundreds of thousands of whites flocked to the Mall for the historic day, looking up at the Capitol to see a black man take the oath of office on the steps of a building built in part by slaves, a racial undertone emerged late in the day’s program.

During the benediction, the Rev. Joseph Lowery invoked a folksy homily: “Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.”

But still, throughout a bitterly cold day - the thermometer said 22 but the whipping wind pushed the chill into the teens - warm smiles passed between strangers as they thronged along the broad avenues leading to the Capitol and Mall. Well before dawn, thousands began a pilgrimage to be a part of the show, to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the man who came almost from nowhere to win the presidency, preaching hope and change.

“You’ll tell your grandchildren about this, yes you will,” one black police officer told a little black girl as she passed through a metal detector on her way to the west lawn.

Around 11 a.m., cheers erupted when the jumbo TV screens showed a motorcade snaking along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol - inside were Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, who had just left the White House after a traditional coffee break before the inauguration. From far back on the Mall, a chant began: “Obama! Obama!” and soon carried to the Capitol.

After being sworn in, the new president delivered bad news, somberly: “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened,” he said. “Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many.”

But like John F. Kennedy, who ushered in Camelot but also framed the duty of all Americans to their country, Mr. Obama said the United States is up to the task it now faces.

“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,” he said. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.”

Minutes later, the new president walked with the old president to a Marine helicopter in the East Front of the Capitol. The men shook hands. The former president boarded with his wife and daughters, leaving the new president and his wife and children on the steps. As the chopper lifted off, the Obamas waved goodbye, and the 44th president’s term was under way.

— Joseph Curl can be reached at

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