WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama took the reins of power from George Bush today, using his inaugural address to stake out a new moral high ground for the nation in the eyes of the world.
His 19-minute speech capped a frenzied morning in which the National Mall was packed and Washington came to a standstill. As the nation's first black president, he called for acceptance among clashing ethnic and religious groups at home and abroad.
Let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled, he said.
His words came under a clear sky, as more than 1 million people packed the National Mall and U.S. Capitol this morning, according to the Associated Press, which based its estimate on crowd photographs and comparisons with past events.
His speech — coming after a rousing performance by Aretha Franklin — brought a huge roar from the audience. People around town tuned in as well: At the George Washington University Hospital emergency room waiting area, the staff and patients — some sitting in wheelchairs — clapped and cheered after Obama took the oath.
Watching the speech on a single TV in the waiting room, some wiped the corners of their eyes as Obama pledged to restore the United States' legal and moral standing in the world.
The speech took place a few minutes after noon. But by then, the day had already been long.
It started early, well before dawn, as people boarded buses and subways, mounted their bikes, or got out their best walking shoes for the long trek to the inauguration zone.
As early as 3:30 a.m., lines formed in suburban parking lots for the Metro subway system. Metro started running trains at 4 a.m., and the first ones were packed.
On a bicycle trail that winds along the Potomac River from suburban Maryland to downtown Washington, scores of bicyclists were riding in the dark — many of them without lights.
Downtown Washington streets were blocked off, with checkpoints rimming the Mall and Capitol. Thousands of National Guard members, police and other security workers managed checkpoints and street corners.
Vendors were out in force, too. By 6 a.m. outside the Dupont Circle Metro subway station, Lee Williams of Baltimore struggled to hawk his commemorative Obama T-shirts. He'd been on the job since 11:30 p.m. Monday.
"I ain't sold two," complained Williams, who retreated to his car to warm up when he got too cold.
People passing him by were intent on their destination: a prime spot on the Mall, even if the only view was of the JumboTron television screens.
By 7 a.m., near the Department of Labor in Northwest Washington, nearly 5,000 people were already on the streets. They were young and old, black and white. Some were dressed in their finest, while most were bundled up in parkas or other heavy coats. Everybody was calm, waiting for the security teams to start clearing people through.
More than a mile away, a sea of passengers exited a Metro stop as officials barked to "keep it moving!"
The crowd promptly picked up the chant as they rode up the elevators to emerge in the Capitol's shadow.
"Keep it moving," they chanted. "Yes we can!"
By 9 a.m. — still three hours before swearing-in — alerts went out that Mall was basically full east of 14th Street, and that people still working their way downtown should aim further west. At the same time, security checkpoints were straining to handle the massive crowds.
By 10:50, President George W. Bush and President-Elect Obama were on their way, traveling in a massive motorcade up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, where Hollywood stars such as Denzel Washington and Dustin Hoffman awaited the ceremony alongside their fans.