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Inauguration Day at the Newseum: A Warm and Fuzzy Crowd
Photograph by Richard Appleton.
Comments () | Published January 21, 2009
What: Inauguration Day “Watch Party.”

Where: The Newseum, at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, Northwest.

When: Tuesday, January 20.

Who: People lucky enough to have snagged one of the 5,000 regular-admission tickets into the museum—the $20 tickets sold out in one day last fall. (Some were later resold on Craiglist for $100 apiece.) People who didn’t have tickets lined up outside, and some were let in as ticketholders left.

Why it was a hot ticket: With its jumbo high-definition TV screens—one video wall is 90 feet long, another 40-by-22-foot screen is one of the largest indoor HD screens in the country—and its walls of glass overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, the museum was a prime spot to watch both the swearing-in and the parade while staying warm. The museum crowd, who could see the Capitol and the Mall in the distance from the windows, included many parents with young children. “We thought it was our best shot to bring a baby down all day without being outside,” said Alexandria resident Mariane Garbaliauskas, who, with her husband, brought their seven-month-old son, Mateus. Mariane is originally from Brazil, her husband from Canada. “He’s the only American in the family,” Garbaliauskas said, gesturing to her son, “and we wanted to be involved in history.”

Scene: A high-energy crowd that cheered and clapped all day—the applause was loudest and some tears were shed when CNN announced, at noon, that Barack Obama was officially president and again, a few minutes later, when he took the oath of office. The partisan crowd—many wearing Obama hats, scarves, buttons, and T-shirts—also cheered when images of other prominent Democrats, such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, flashed on the screens; many applauded and waved goodbye as CNN showed moving vans at the White House and the Bushes boarding a helicopter after the swearing-in. “Enough is enough!” shouted one woman. “It’s time for change!” another called out. Although thousands lined the stairwells, walkways, and windows along Pennsylvania Avenue to get the best views of the atrium TV and parade route, the mood was jubilant, and everyone—including the busy Newseum staff—was friendly. “We were on the floor, on our backs, watching the big screen,” said Nancy Tartt. “And then I jumped up when Obama was sworn in, and there was this man, a stranger, and we just hugged. I’ve lived in DC over 40 years, and never has there been this sense that there is something going on that’s magical. When I was waiting in line to get in today—I waited a little over an hour—20 of us were singing in line, things like ‘Hello, happiness, goodbye, George.’ ”

Boldface names: None in the crowd, but TV crews from CNN (Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, David Gergen), ABC (Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer), and other networks were camped out on the Newseum’s outdoor terraces or studios. Inside, CNN correspondents including James Carville, Paul Begala, William Bennett, and John King broadcast live from the fifth floor, in view of spectators.

Food and drink: Food was for sale at the food court and other makeshift stands set up for the occasion—choices included everything from burgers and pizza to chicken Caesar wraps—but the lines were very long between the swearing-in and parade. The line at the bar for beer, wine, and mixed drinks? None. It was a family atmosphere.

Conversational topics (besides topic A, the inauguration itself): How early people had arrived downtown, how long it had taken them to get there, and the hassle of getting through security checkpoints on the street. Some visitors arrived as early as 2 AM to get through security and get in line for the museum’s 10 AM opening. Some spent two hours on the Metro or four hours in security lines. Some never made it for the swearing-in. Other visitors breezed through the Fourth Street checkpoint, which at 10 AM had no lines. A Newseum worker helped some ticketholders being turned away at security to get through. The result of the long lines and checkpoint closings: The sidewalks in front of the Newseum, particularly on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, were fairly empty for the parade.

Interest in the museum exhibits: Not much. While the museum was completely open for viewing, few adults gave up prime seats or window perches to check out the displays. Many kids did amuse themselves at the interactive exhibits.

Surreal moments: The 90-foot-long video wall on the fifth floor displayed multiple images from various media outlets including CNN, C-SPAN, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, and Fox. To avoid a jumble of voices, only the largest images, from CNN, were audible—but its feed was delayed and the audio was out of sync with the same images from the other networks. Oddly, the screen feeds also included ESPN—so amid scenes from the Mall and the Capitol were highlights of the previous day’s hockey, basketball, and Australian Open tennis. But screen glitches didn’t bother this crowd, which occasionally broke into chants of “O-ba-ma!” and stood up when House majority leader Nancy Pelosi asked the people at the swearing-in to stand for the presidential oath of office. “I originally thought we’d watch the parade outside,” said Richard Pennington, Atlanta’s chief of police, who had come to the Newseum with family members including his sixth-grade son. “But when we saw the screens—this is a beautiful view.”

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