By Maureen Doud, Op-Ed Columnist for The New York Times:
"It was the Instant the Earth Stood Still.
"Not since Klaatu landed in a flying saucer on the Ellipse has Washington been so mesmerized by an object whirring through the sky.
"But this one was departing, not arriving.
"As W. ceased to be president, he flew off over the Capitol and across the Mall en route to Andrews Air Force Base, and then back to Texas.
"I’ve seen many presidents come and go, but I’ve never watched a tableau like the one Tuesday, when four million eyes turned heavenward, following the helicopter’s path out of town. Everyone, it seemed, was waving goodbye, with one or two hands, a wave that moved westward down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial, and keeping their eyes fixed unwaveringly on that green bird.
"They wanted to make absolutely, positively certain that W. was gone. It was like a physical burden being lifted, like a sigh went up of 'Thank God. Has Cheney’s wheelchair left the building, too?'
"The crowd was exuberant that George Bush was now an ex-president, and 43 himself was jovial 'the way he always is,' according to his last press secretary, Dana Perino.
"It was like a catharsis in Greek drama, with the antagonist plucked out of the scene into the sky, and the protagonist dropping into the scene to magically fix all the problems. Except Barack Obama’s somber mien and restrained oratory conveyed that he’s no divinity and there will be no easy resolution to this plot.
"It was a morning of such enormous emotion and portent — jaw-dropping, Dow-dropping and barrier-dropping — that even the cool new president had to feel daunted to see his blocks-long motorcade and two million hope-besotted faces beaming up at him, dreaming that he can save their shirts.
"The optimism was tempered by pessimism, a vibe of 'Maybe this once-in-a-lifetime guy can do it, but boy, there are a lot of never-in-our-lifetime problems here.'
"Unlike W., Obama is a realist. He knows there is the potential of letting all these blissed-out people down.
"The day had its jittery moments: Teddy Kennedy’s collapse and Robert Byrd’s distraught reaction. There was also that match of the titan smarty-pants — the new Democratic president face to face with the conservative chief justice he voted against.
"First John Roberts had to say, Easy, cowboy, after Mr. Obama jumped the gun on “I” at the start of the oath of office. Then the president, who had obviously been looking over his lines, graciously offered the chief justice a chance to correct his negligent syntax, when he put the 'faithfully' and other words out of place.
"Under the platform, near where I sat, Denzel Washington, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and P. Diddy looked on proudly as the new commander in chief showed he was in command of the script and the country.
"After thanking President Bush 'for his service to our nation,' Mr. Obama executed a high-level version of Stephen Colbert’s share-the-stage smackdown of W. at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2006.
"With W. looking on, and probably gradually realizing with irritation, as he did with Colbert, who Mr. Obama’s target was — (Is he talking about me? Is 44 saying I messed everything up?) — the newly minted president let him have it: 'As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,' he said to wild applause (and to Bartlett’s), adding: 'Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.' He said America is choosing hope over fear, unity over discord, setting aside 'false promises' and 'childish things.'
"Letting a little air out of the highest hopes about what one man, even 'The One,' can do, he emphasized the word 'our.' He stressed that rebuilding after the wreckage of W. and Cheney will be a shared burden and that 'giving our all to a difficult task' isn’t as bad as it sounds.
"I grew up here, and it was the first time I’ve ever seen the city wholly, happily integrated, with a mood redolent of New York in the weeks after 9/11. The Obamas have made an unprecedented pledge to get involved in the real city that lies beyond the political Oz, and have already started doing so in many ways, including starting the night out at the D.C. Neighborhood Inaugural Ball.
"Downtown was a euphoric pedestrian mall of commerce and communal kindness. The patience that America is extending to Mr. Obama, according to a Times poll, was reflected across the capital, as the cram of people sparked warmth rather than antsiness.
"Strollers laughed as a peddler in a Rasta hat hawked his 'Barack Obama incense.' And revelers stepped up to a spot where you could pick out a colored magic marker and complete posters that began, 'Mr. President, I hope for ...'
"Entries ranged from 'burning less oil' to 'healthcare for all' to 'a cure for cancer”' to this lofty and entirely understandable sentiment: 'a sick inauguration party.' "