Obama Moves In, to Cheers and Tears

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:50pm

It was a day marked by all the pomp and ceremony that accompanies the transfer of the world’s most powerful position from one person to another. It was a day that fulfilled the dreams of thousands of Americans who lined Pennsylvania Avenue and millions who watched on TV to see the nation’s first African-American president and experience his promise for a new direction. It was a day with some decidedly unexpected moments.

And it was a day that President Barack Obama filled with the amazing aplomb that has brought him from the Illinois Senate just four years ago to the presidency. And it was cold.

Obama’s day started with a prayer service, a brief stop back at the Blair House, where he has stayed the past few days, and then a motorcade across the street to the White House. George W. and Laura Bush waited at the top of the steps with cheer — perhaps remarkable given the power they were ceding, or perhaps reasonable considering they were about to shed the burdens of office.

Bush warmly shook the hand of the man who would succeed him in just two hours and offered Obama’s wife a kiss on the cheek. The four then entered the White House for a formal coffee that would mark Bush’s last minutes as lord of the manor.

As they emerged, squeals erupted from the bleachers on Pennsylvania Avenue where some had gathered early for the parade. Obama was beginning to soak in the adulation that would follow him the rest of the day.

A deliberate motorcade down Pennsylvania Avenue followed — presidents usually complete the trip in minutes, but this journey took perhaps a dozen. Along the way was a growing, mostly enthusiastic crowd but also a hint of the profane, with some signs calling for Bush to be jailed and others associating Obama with the devil.

At the inauguration itself, there was a rapturous reception from crowds that stretched back to the Lincoln Memorial.

But there was also a bit of the quirkiness that touched the day.

Chief Justice John Roberts initially flubbed his lines at the swearing-in. Obama paused, knowing the mistake. But then he decided to politely repeat the incorrect statement, only to have Roberts — just prior to Obama speaking — try to correct it. Anyway, he’s president.

Following the speech, various Bushes began to emerge from the east part of the Capitol to board the Marine One-style chopper that would take the ex-president and his retinue away. The ex-first daughters, Barbara and Jenna, came out and hugged some of the people they had come to know during their time in Washington and headed to the helicopter.

Former President George H.W. Bush also came out, donning on his head a warm-looking Russian “shapka” and walking with some care. Ahead of him was his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush.

Also exiting was former Vice President Dick Cheney. In an appearance perhaps symbolic of the travails of the administration, he was ensconced in a wheelchair, the result of an injury incurred while moving into his new house. He proceeded to a waiting line of cars.

The former president, the new president, Vice President Joseph Biden and their wives all appeared at the top of the steps. Biden and his wife peeked into Cheney’s motorcade to say goodbye to the former vice president. Then the Obamas and the Bushes strode to the chopper. After warm embraces all around, George W. and Laura Bush ascended the steps, waved goodbye, and alighted from the east Capitol parking lot, making a left as they flew over the Senate to head over the Mall one last time. The Obamas went to lunch, where more unusual — and hopefully not tragic — moments were in store.

At some point during the meal, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was stricken by a seizure related to his brain tumor. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was also removed from the lunch, although his office clarified that Byrd did not suffer from a health issue.

Perhaps because of this, Obama’s emergence from the lunch was delayed. Two motorcycles waiting to escort him conked out in the cold. But the parade got under way, and as the limo approached, the crowd’s response was wildly enthusiastic.

Barack and Michelle Obama stopped the procession twice to get out to acknowledge the glee that greeted them, showing evident joy and frequently holding each other like two kids who somehow made it to the center of the world’s stage and were savoring every moment of it.

The crowds were diverse, with Obama fans of all ages leaping with excitement. People were waving to the press trucks — anyone in the parade who might receive their excitement. As Obama’s car passed, the screams turned to a roar. Many older African-Americans were on hand, looks of evident wonder at the moment that had arrived: a black American as president and a descendent of slaves as his first lady.

Barack and Michelle Obama arrived at the White House, scooped up their daughters, and headed for the reviewing stand where they would watch the rest of the parade and prepare for a series of balls that would extend well into the early morning hours.