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.
“It is an amazing day and I will pass this on to my children, grandchildren, generation to generation,” said Barbara Morrison of New York City, who waited with a crowd estimated at 10,000 near one security checkpoint. “I never thought I would see this day.”
Whatever the enthusiasm, the day was tempered by the cold, with the wind chill throughout the morning about 10 degrees, and the temperature in the low 20s.
Near one Metro stop, a group of six students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology huddled around a map, breath steaming, trying to figure the best way to the Mall. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the computer science majors shrugged, they had a GPS device. But taking it out to use it was too chilly, said Andrew Sutherland, 19.
"My hands are just too cold," Sutherland said.
A few people milling around downtown carried anti-Bush signs. One said, “Bush your time is up.” But mostly people came to celebrate the inauguration.
“I’ve lived in this city for 23 years and never seen anything like this,” said Michael Fener, who spent the night in his downtown Washington office with his wife.
"We just wanted to be part of something special,” Regine Fener said.
For Jeff and Susan Larry of Chicago, it was the end of a long journey.
The couple began volunteering for Obama nearly two years ago, shortly after the Illinois senator announced his candidacy for president. They traveled to seven different caucus and primary states, knocking on doors, passing out fliers, making telephone calls and even giving speeches.
By Tuesday, Jeff Larry, who runs a venture capital firm in Chicago, could hardly contain his glee. "I have danced more in the last two days than I have in the last 20 years," he said.
At the same time, he struggled to find the proper message for his three children, also at the inauguration.
"I'm constantly walking a fine line between making it a big deal and not making it a big deal," he said. "You can't expect 7-, 10- and 13-year-old black children to internalize all the history we've gotten over the 47 years we lived and what our ancestors gave us. These kids see a different world. So this is way more impactful for us than it is for them."
It was a sentiment echoed by many others, particularly African Americans of the civil rights generation — many of whom never dreamed they would live to see a black person elected to the nation’s highest office.
During the swearing-in ceremony, Cincinnati native Dorothy Darby and her cousin Yvette Edwards, of Baltimore, cried and Edwards shouted words of praise when Obama placed his hand on Lincoln’s Bible. After the ceremony, the two women walked as far as they could down First Street, then they took a break, leaned against a building, and watched the crowd pass by. As they sat, they contemplated the gravity of the moment.
“I have been working on this campaign for two years,” Darby said. “I wanted to follow this thing through to see the first black man elected president. Barack has shown that this is everyone’s country. A place for the blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Indians. Now we are truly a melting pot.”
Also contributing to this story were Halimah Abdullah, Barbara Barrett, Erika Bolstad, Les Blumenthal, Lesley Clark, William Douglas, Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel, Tony Pugh and Tish Wells.