Even Though It's Cold, Capitol Is Hot Spot

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office in front of the Capitol, he will become the nation's first African-American president. Hosts Steve Inskeep and Michele Norris are at the Capitol and tell Renee Montagne what they are seeing. Also reporting from the Capitol is Don Gonyea. Just a few blocks down the Mall is NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's been talking to visitors to the city.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep at the U.S. Capitol where the temperature is in the 30s at best, but many thousands have come to witness history.

MONTAGNE: And Steve, as we all know, it's just, well, three hours, a little less than that that Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. And you're sitting with a perfect view of what will come. What are the festivities - as they begin shortly, what's happening there now?

INSKEEP: Well, right now we're hearing recorded music and people are filing in. The people with tickets have begun to arrive in great numbers, and the people who were not ticketed, who had no chance to see anything close up are, as far as we can see, still across the Mall. And as the sun came up earlier, you could see thousands of flash bulbs going off as people got pictures to capture that moment. You can still see that glitter out there.

Now, I'm on the edge of this improvised amphitheater, if you will, on the edge of the U.S. Capitol, joined by a couple of colleagues, one of whom is NPR's Don Gonyea, who covered the Bush White House, will be covering the Obama White House. And Don, what are your thoughts as you witness what's happening here today?

DON GONYEA: First, this is my third inaugural that I've been from roughly - watched from roughly the same vantage point. And I've never seen anything even remotely like this. It really is astounding. Of course the country is in a very different place than it was when George W. Bush first gave his inaugural address back eight years ago on this day. That speech, as well, came at the end of a very bitter election contest, and this feels so different today.

INSKEEP: And we should mention the basics are all the same. There's a platform where the president-elect will take the oath of office, just as George W. Bush did and Bill Clinton before him. There's a vast semicircle of folding chairs where all the members of Congress will be. Governors and mayors and other officials from across the country will be here. This is in many ways the same event it always is, but what you're saying is the energy feels a little different.

GONYEA: That's it exactly. And a lot of it is the historic nature of this incoming presidency, being the first African-American, but there's also something about the campaign and the kind of campaign he ran that was unlike any that we have really seen.

INSKEEP: Much of this event is symbolism, Don. But one thing is substantive and that will be the inaugural address. What have the people around President-elect Obama been telling you about what he'll say?

GONYEA: The memorable inaugural addresses throughout history have been those that not only described the time, but they also kind of reflect the time when they are given. And President-elect Obama's people say that his goal really is to describe the moment we find ourselves in right now. We will hear echoes of John F. Kennedy here - "Ask not...

INSKEEP: "What your country can do for you," yeah.

GONYEA: "What can your country can do for you." We'll hear that. We will also get some, I think, very brief allusion to the historic nature of this, but he's not going to dwell on this. But mostly it will be a variation - a new language certainly - but a variation on what we heard over the course of the general election campaign that it's time to put divisions aside and for everyone to work together.

INSKEEP: Time to change politics, he said, and now is when he has to provide the substance to that...

GONYEA: Correct.

INSKEEP: Beginning today. There's another voice we'll be hearing much in our coverage over the next several hours. NPR's Michele Norris will be joining me and all the rest of us as we listen to that inaugural address and the rest of the festivities through the day. Michele, good morning.

MICHELE NORRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you thinking about as you look across over this crowd that now stretches far beyond what we can see?

NORRIS: Oh, I am sure it stretches far into Virginia and perhaps even into Maryland just to the north of us. See, one of the things that makes this feel so different is the sheer number of people and the sense that we live in a world where you can have so many virtual experiences. You can watch things on television, you can look at that little screen on your PDA, but a sense that so many people weren't content to watch on television or even listen on the radio...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NORRIS: That they had to be here. There was this sense that they would make great sacrifice, spend a lot of money, slog here, you know, in buses and cars. They had to actually be here physically just to hear this.

INSKEEP: And you've heard those conversations. People say, why do you bother going when it's a worse view than what you get on television? And of course the answer is, I don't care, I'm going.

NORRIS: You know, one thing, did you notice that when we were making our way here, it's really early in the morning, but normally when you walk down on the street in Washington, you almost always see people with those little white ear buds in their ear...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Closing out the rest of the world.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NORRIS: Didn't see that at all this morning. It was sense that people didn't want to close out the world. They wanted to be a part of what was going on here today.

INSKEEP: A huge event. And let's go out into that crowd. Stay with us, Michele. We want to go to NPR's Ari Shapiro, our justice correspondent normally, and today he's a crowd correspondent. Ari, where are you? Can I see you? Should I wave?

ARI SHAPIRO: You should wave to me. I'm standing here on the Mall in the midst of this immense crowd that is jamming to a replay of the Sunday concert that was in front of the Lincoln Memorial. People have been gathering since before dawn, waving flags. And actually, Steve, I'm going to hand over the microphone here to somebody who I'm standing with, a woman named Sarah Schumann(ph) who is a Swedish citizen, lives in New York, and I'm going to let her finish the story, OK? Here she is.

INSKEEP: Hi, Ms. Schumann.

Ms. SARAH SCHUMANN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: What brought you here today?

Ms. SCHUMANN: I decided the last minute to drive down here from New York just because this is a historical event. And I'm here with two of my American girlfriends. I got - when Obama was elected, I decided right away that I want to apply for citizenship. I've been in New York for nine years, and I've been a resident - I have a green card for almost eight years. And I just never thought about even applying for citizenship. I never really felt like I was that eager to become a citizen.

But now, Obama elected, I feel that there actually is hope in this country, and I want to be part of that. And now I'm proud and I already filled in my applications. And you know, I thought it was - I can't miss this event. It's going to be a big thing for me, and it's kind of a kickoff for me to be here and the beginning of becoming a citizen.

INSKEEP: Ms. Schumann, I just want to ask - I want to understand if it's something about Obama's policies. Is it the fact that he's the first black president, the fact that he, unlike a lot of American presidents, has spent a lot of time abroad? What made you as a foreigner feel more comfortable now that this election has taken place?

Ms. SCHUMANN: I think he's - for me it's very important with the foreign policy. And I think he's a more popular president in other countries. Especially in Sweden, he's - that's what - most people like him there. And I think he's for - environmental friendly, he's for change, he's young, he's a smart man. And I listened to him a lot even before he was an elect. And I always liked him as a politician, and I like having a smart person as a leader.

INSKEEP: Well, Sarah Schumann, thanks very much for sharing your story with us, and good luck as you apply for citizenship to become an American. Congratulations.

Ms. SCHUMANN: Well, thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Michele Norris is with me here. A helicopter is passing overhead, as has been happening, and people are continuing to file in.

NORRIS: Perhaps trying to get a crowd estimate, tying to figure out how many people are actually out here on this mall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Steve, it's - you know, we're starting to see the precursor to the ceremony. The first family will start to make their way here in about an hour. On the stage, they have a number of seats set up where the president, the family, the Cabinet will be seated, members of Congress. And we see here now John Podesta who ran the transition, former White House chief of staff, walking through very carefully, checking the seats, making sure that everyone is seated exactly where they should be.

INSKEEP: You would think that somebody a little less senior would be doing that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: But no, this is important. This is symbolism. And everybody has to be taken care of.

NORRIS: And Don Gonyea noticed also that John Lewis made his way here. And I don't know, Don, were you wondering if maybe he just wanted to come and take an early peek because he didn't look like he had business to take care of. He just sort of came out to take a look.

INSKEEP: Great civil rights leader and congressman.

GONYEA: And there are no other members of Congress coming through yet, and you do very much get the sense that he just wanted a moment alone out there maybe...

NORRIS: Yeah, yeah.

GONYEA: ...to take things in.

NORRIS: Lion of the civil rights movement, faced hoses and dogs as he tried to nudge and shove this country forward, and I imagine what's on his mind today.

INSKEEP: OK, and we want to mention that we will continue live coverage throughout the morning. Starting at 10 o'clock Eastern, 7 o'clock Pacific, we will be all live from this location with Michele Norris. We'll bring you the latest. We will hear the music and much of the performances that will be taking part - that will be part of this. And of course we'll hear the swearing in, 37 words swearing in Barack Obama as president of the United States, followed by his inaugural address, about one hundred feet or so from this spot. We'll bring you more as we learn it. You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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