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- February 02, 2009
- Vol. 71
- No. 4
'We Have Chosen Hope'
The Barack Obama Era Began with a Massive, Peaceful, Emotional Gathering, a Sober Speech—and Jubilant Celebrations That Went on Till the Wee Hours
Then at 12:05 p.m., the real photo op: Barack Hussein Obama placed his palm upon the burgundy, velvet-covered Bible on which Abraham Lincoln took the same vow in 1861 (see box, page 52) and, keeping his cool as Chief Justice John Roberts slightly fumbled the 35-word presidential oath, the first African-American President in the nation's history let the world know that change had come. Before a hushed crowd of an estimated 1.5 million (and billions more watching around the world), the President called upon his fellow citizens to "begin again the work of remaking America," cautioning that the road ahead would be difficult. "The challenges we face are real. They are serious. And they are many," he said. "But know this, America—they will be met." Malia had warned her father before his speech, "First African-American President. Better be good," and he obeyed. Summoning a dash of Lincoln, a dollop of F.D.R., and above all his own trademark elegant cadences, Obama, 47, framed the day: "We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
He appeared emotional when he reminded listeners that his father, Kenyan-born Barack Sr., may not have been served in a Washington, D.C., restaurant less than 60 years ago. Neither he nor Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, lived to see this proud day, but other relatives were on hand, including his half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng and his father's half sister Zeituni Onyango, who said, "This is overwhelming. My brother would have been very, very proud. Before he passed away, he told me, 'This one will lift my name on top of the world.'"
In a post-speech interview, President Obama told ABC's Robin Roberts, "Part of what I wanted to communicate was that government is going to work, we're going to make it work. But it's ultimately the American people coming together that is going to determine what we accomplish." That message of unity resonated throughout the four-day Inaugural celebration, which included balls and parades; concerts massive—some 400,000 gathered on the Mall for the We Are One concert—and private; and a day of service in which people across the country participated.
And it was reinforced not only by the new President's words, but by gestures—perhaps nowhere more eloquently than in the peaceful passing of the baton from the nation's 43rd President to its 44th. Continuing the goodwill that he's shown the Obamas since Election Day, President George W. Bush, 62, greeted the President-elect with an enthusiastic "Sir!" as the two First Couples assembled outside the North Portico two hours before Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony. Later, Obama offered Bush a warm hug on the podium and became the first President in memory to witness his predecessor's departure. As the Bushes lifted off in a chopper from the east Capitol parking lot, both the Obamas and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, stood on the Capitol steps waving farewell.
The drama of an already extraordinary day was heightened during Obama's next stop, a Congressional luncheon for some 200 guests in National Statuary Hall. The festivities jolted to a halt when Sen. Ted Kennedy suffered a seizure and was taken out by ambulance. (By evening, word came that Kennedy was chatting and resting comfortably.) The President addressed the crowd with composure, but friends say he was shaken. Obama "cares for Senator Kennedy very deeply," says John Rogers, an Obama friend from Chicago. "The concern was just written all over his face." After Kennedy, 76, who is fighting brain cancer, was stabilized, Obama stopped by every table, where guests dined on a menu inspired by some of Lincoln's favorite foods: seafood stew, pheasant, apple cinnamon sponge cake. "He was just lovely," says Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York. "He said, 'Give me a kiss, Louise.' I said, 'Okay.'"
In counterpoint to the calm shown by Obama and his wife, Michelle, 45, who smiled at his side as they went from event to event, excitement had been building around the world from the moment that Obama kicked off his "celebration of American renewal" with a retracing of Lincoln's 137-mile whistle-stop train tour from Philadelphia to D.C. in a 1939 blue vintage rail car. In Delaware, where he stopped to pick up V.P.-elect Biden, 10-year-old Freddie Hazzard climbed a fence for a better view. "I read history books and they don't say anything about black Presidents," the fifth grader said. "We got one—and it's amazing."
The celebrities who swarmed to town to catch a glimpse of the man were no less awestruck. At a starry gathering on Monday night at Café Milano, where she made an appearance on the arm of her husband, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez called Obama "the biggest rock star here."
Need proof that this President represents a different generation? At the We Are One concert, "Beyoncé was talking about the 'Single Ladies' dance," reports singer Josh Groban. "And Obama said, 'Oh, I'm trying to learn that.'" (Need proof that fathers are never cool, even when they are Barack Obama? Says Groban, "The girls were like, 'Oh, Dad.'")
Other celebs had hopeful brushes with the new President. "I told him that we need to have a secretary of culture," says jazz musician Herbie Hancock. "He said, 'Are you applying for the job?'"
Samuel L. Jackson, who at age 19 was an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 funeral, says, "I talked to him about golf because I've seen his golf swing and I think he really needs to work on that."
There is no doubt that the Obamas intend to bring their own style to town. Between the swearing-in and the 1.7-mile Inaugural Parade, with its more than 13,000 participants from 103 organizations, the family had a chance to slip into their new house. The Bushes had moved much of their stuff out weeks ago, and all day long movers had been bringing in and arranging the new First Family's possessions, which in the Obamas' case, according to an aide, are only "personal effects, picture frames and creature comforts," since they want to keep their Chicago home intact. (Among the essentials: the girls' stuffed animals. "Tiger," a doll she's had since age 3, "is always with Malia," says a family friend.)
Steps were already being taken to scrub the place—literally and figuratively—of some things Bush. All four paintings by Texas artists—the former President's favorites—were ordered taken down. And a bust of Winston Churchill, which Bush borrowed from the Brits, was packed for return shipping across the pond. What remained? For now, the George Washington portrait over the fireplace, a bust of Abraham Lincoln, Bush's draperies and his pale yellow "sunburst" carpet, specially designed, Bush always said, to convey optimism in the Oval Office.
The overall goal, says new White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, is to be "warm, welcoming, erring on the side of comfort. We want to honor history, but at the same time make certain that their style is modern." Rogers says the Obamas hope to throw lots of family events, with simple foods, kids' tables, "the way a young family might entertain at their home."
Obama friends got a taste of that down-home flavor at a private party on Jan. 18 at Blair House, attended by some 90 friends and family members, among them Oprah and First Mom-in-Law Marian Robinson. Against a backdrop of live music performed by the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet, guests dined on a buffet of chicken, fish and rice. "Kids were running around just being kids," says Charles Fishman, who oversaw the evening's music. "It was a very warm, informal evening, a little send-off party."
Or rather, the party before the many parties. Displaying a tirelessness honed during the 21-month campaign, the Obamas hit all 10 official Inaugural balls. At their first stop, the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, the new President demonstrated a keen grasp of priorities: "First of all, how good-looking is my wife?" he said. With Beyoncé crooning Etta James's "At Last," Washington's most powerful It couple, he in white tie, she in white Jason Wu gown, looked more like love-struck newlyweds, somehow able to ignore the sea of cameras trained on them. With a promise to start work early the next morning, Obama told ABC's Roberts, "tonight ... I'm going to soak in the atmosphere."
But true to their emphasis on keeping Chicago family and friends close, the Obamas closed out their Inaugural day with an intimate soiree at their new abode—the White House—with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis providing the music. "They like to relax with their friends," says Rogers. "This is what they do."
But change has come even to longtime relationships with old Obama pals like CSI: NY actor Hill Harper, a friend of the new President's from Harvard Law School. "For the rest of my life, I'll never refer to him as 'Barack' again. It's 'Mr. President' or 'President Obama,'" says Harper, who expects to continue playing pick-up games of basketball with the leader of the free world. But not just yet. "I'm sure he hasn't slept much. And tomorrow the work starts."
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