Throngs Come to the National Mall to See History and Make History
Howard University News Service
Hours in 30-degree weather had not wilted the crowd’s enthusiasm. When President Barack Obama stepped to the podium on the west steps at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, they were waving postcard-size American flags and chanting “O-Bah-MA.”
The crowd clustered most tightly around giant monitors had bonded with their neighbors, batted around beach balls, shared food, blankets, camp chairs and foot warmers. Here and there, they erupted in song during the eight-hour lead-up to the official swearing-in. And now they listened intently to Obama’s first address to them as their 44th president.
For 15 minutes, Obama recapped his campaign platform to lower health-care costs, improve education, fund renewable energy projects, make politicians more accountable and rebuild the failing economy.
“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many,” he said. “They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.”
Obama said America must reclaim its principal ideal: “The God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
The new president once again declared he would end the war in Iraq and provide more help to Afghanistan. He promised a helping hand to nations who needed it. But, he gave a stern warning to any who plan to cross America.
“We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you,” Obama said.
He had barely delivered his last plea to citizens to fight together through the current hardships, when applause erupted from the massive crowd that extended two miles to the Lincoln Memorial and then on farther– to the White House.
“I’m hoping that we set a record for attendance,” said Worth Newman, 18, a college student from North Carolina. “I want to be able to say that I was out here during this critical point in American history with the most number of people at an inauguration.”
Frank White, from California, and his son, Reem Henderson, from Philadelphia, were part of the crowd that could not find a spot on the Mall. They spent the morning in the two-story McDonald’s at a Smithsonian museum, with binoculars and a television. But they left their comfortable lair after the national anthem.
“We just wanted be part of the atmosphere,” Henderson said.
“We wanted to be counted,” White added.
Soon after the applause for the address, some in the crowd – many of them had been on their feet for 10 hours – began dispersing. It was slow and fitful retreat. Two of the nearest Metro stations were closed for the day. Streets to the north were closed for the parade route and much of the crowd flocked to L’Enfant Plaza station.
Some trekked south to the Waterfront station. Others sat on sidewalks to wait until the mob was reduced. Their patience endured for two hours for a ride on a train. Others walked across the freeway into Virginia.
Nearly three hours following the benediction at the ceremony, a “Not-in-Service” bus driver gave in to a small crowd’s pleas and agreed to take riders to the Pentagon Metro station in Virginia.
“We just didn’t think about how to get out of here,” said Jess Manning, from Minnesota. “Most people, like me, don’t know any other way to get out than the way we came in and we can’t all leave through there.”
Manning rode the bus to the Pentagon station and then took the train back into Washington toward her inner-city destination.
“I’d do it again,” she said, exiting the train where she’d boarded 12 hours before.
Before sunrise and long after sunset the 44th president was on the minds and in the hearts of millions.