Shortly past 9 a.m. Santa Barbara time on Tuesday, 48-year-old former Illinois senator Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. A jubilant but remarkably well-behaved sea of patriotic people-estimated to be two million strong and arguably the biggest ever to assemble in Washington, D.C.-stretched clear from the Capitol to well past the World War II Monument along the National Mall to bear witness as Obama took his historic oath of office under chilly blues skies. Heralded as a “hinge point in history” by Californian Pastor Rick Warren during the ceremony’s invocation, the occasion simultaneously marked the first-ever time that an African American has assumed our country’s highest public office as well as the end of the George W. Bush era, one of the least popular presidencies in American history. It was, in the words of one man in attendance speaking to his young son hoisted upon his shoulders, “one of the most important days you will ever see in your life, or mine.”
Spirits soared in Santa Barbara as well. The Arlington Theatre, for the first time, broadcasted live Obama’s taking of the oath of office, and hordes showed up to watch, from children let out of school by their parents for the big day to retirees who relished in the emotional experience. More than 1,000 people-perhaps as many as 1,700, for the 2,011-seat venue was standing room only, though the 300-plus seat balcony was closed-crowded into the historic theater to watch the historic moment, cheering loudly for the new president and letting loose more than a few boos for the outgoing one. Later that evening, Santa Barbara’s Democrats celebrated en masse at Carr Winery on Salsipuedes Street, while wealthy Montecitans and those recently made homeless combined for a gala at the Granada. Called the UniTea Ball, the inaugural fundraiser featured performances from Glen Phillips, Alan Parsons, Kenny Loggins, and others, and brought in more than $60,000 for Tea Fire victims, who were invited to attend the $150-per-person gala free of charge.
While cities across the U.S. may have each celebrated the new president with parties or balls, the inauguration itself-coming just one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day-transcended mere political pomp and circumstance to become a celebration of the highest degree long before the first ticket holder was even admitted. By 4:30 a.m., crowds of people, bundled against a biting cold, stood shoulder to shoulder for blocks on end in the area surrounding the National Mall. Chants of “Obama! Obama! Obama!” rang out as others broke into renditions of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” to help stay warm and pass the time until the gates officially opened.
The crush of people, often times as wide as a freeway, snaked even more impressively as the morning wore on. By 10 a.m.-with Jersey barriers, metal fences, and countless Secret Service, FBI, and D.C. police security details trying to control the surging crowds-frustrations began to flare as flowing rivers of people, individuals so close to one another that it was often impossible even to raise one’s hands, took wrong turns down closed streets or were denied access in areas previously reported to be “official” points of entry for the ceremony.
“I’m out of here! I’ve been in line since 3 a.m. and haven’t moved more than 20 feet,” moaned a female ticket holder as she hopped a security barrier on 3rd Avenue and tried to leave. Ironically, the flow away from the crowds was often just as difficult to navigate as getting into the National Mall. Others simply struggled and shuffled along for hours on end, tickets blissfully in hand, only to be denied due to overcrowding, or, in many cases, never actually being able to physically make it to the security check points. And it wasn’t just the general-admission folks or the standing-room-only ticket holders who were impacted. About an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, actors Samuel L. Jackson and Vanessa Williams and former Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox were all seen stuck in the crowd outside. “When it came down to it, none of us really knew what was going on,” explained one of the red beanie-wearing volunteers charged with helping herd and inform the masses. That being said, according to authorities, not only was the entire event relatively incident-free-save for cases of hypothermia and minor injuries due to crowd and security barrier collisions-but the only real potential pockmark, an elderly woman falling onto the Metro’s tracks as a train approached, miraculously was avoided as the woman was able to scamper to safety and hide in a crevice along the tracks as the train blasted by.
For those lucky or swift enough to navigate the crowds, the scene inside the Mall was breathtaking and inspirational. A mosaic of smiling faces young and old, their features as complete a representation of the diverse American public as perhaps any other inauguration celebration in our history, stretched for as far as the eye could see. Conga lines and impromptu jigs broke out as music blasted over the PA system. Deafening cheers erupted as JumboTron screens, placed throughout the Mall’s lawn, flashed images of soon-to-be President Obama and his family leaving the White House and making their way to the Capitol building. Similarly, boos and choruses of “Hey, hey, hey! Goodbye!” echoed as the screens showed President Bush’s motorcade arriving.
As for the ceremony itself, it was a celebration for sure, complete with stirring performances by Aretha Franklin and Yo-Yo Ma, among others, but it was also an occasionally somber reminder of the trying economic and war-torn times in which we currently find ourselves. After taking his oath from Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Obama addressed the million-plus in attendance, and the many millions more watching around the world via television or Internet broadcast, for the first time as the president of the United States. “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,” explained the newly minted Commander in Chief. “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” Then, as his speech progressed, the spirit of hope, change, and commitment that were the calling card of the Obama campaign began to rise. Cheers and tears flowed as he continued, “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America-they will be met. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Closing with a timeless quote from Thomas Paine, President Obama left the masses howling, whooping, and yelling across the Mall, their undulations a practically primal sound of overwhelming approval and release. And, more than 12 hours later, the party continued in earnest throughout the streets of D.C. and the many formal and informal presidential balls around town. Santa Barbara’s own Jack Johnson performed songs at Obama’s Home State Ball. Even as the unparalleled security measures were being taken down in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the sidewalks buzzed with revelers, be they politicos, wannabes, Hollywood elite, or nothing more than average American citizens. No matter your political lean, one thing was overwhelmingly obvious: History had just been made.