It was cold, but so it was cold when John F. Kennedy asked that we ask what we could do for our country. There was nasty weather, too, when George W. Bush took his first presidential oath. It didn't just rain on his parade, it sleeted on it, and that should have been a sign.
Say this about the frigid, challenging day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States and the country's first to be a bona fide African American: There was a sun overhead, and this, too, could be an omen.
But it was the crowds that made this inauguration different. They were not only bigger — stretching as far back and wide from the west front of the Capitol as the Mall and its environs could accommodate — they may have constituted the largest single assembly of people in human history. (If they failed to, it was surely only because the circumferent space around the Capitol and the Mall had been cleared for security reasons.)
And the crowd was different because of its composition. In the days and nights leading up to the inauguration, the streets of Washington had mingled tuxedoes and backpacks, and the accents one heard denoted not only North and Midwest and South but continents and peoples from the other side of the world.
This administration could fail or flounder, as the previous one did. Hardly had the new president begun his inaugural remarks than he told it plain: "That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. 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. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."
These are indeed ominous times — but hopeful times, as well. As the president told us, in words that reminded us what had brought us to this precedent-shattering day and which offered us a key to his vision of resolving the crisis: "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
Tuesday's occasion, if nothing else, made us all realize a fuller dimension to the term "a more perfect union than we ever had before."
Since his election, most comparisons involving Obama have been to Lincoln or FDR. Add another model for this dangerous and venturesome time and one appropriate to the bracing weather of the day: Close to his conclusion, President Obama cited the words of George Washington, the father of our country: "Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."