America amazed the world once more today, and maybe even itself.
On a cold and ominous January day of "gathering clouds and raging storms," as he described it, the nation took a step unforeseeable to its founders, unimaginable to generations of its preservers, and made Barack Obama, a son of Africa, its president.
By doing so, the new president said in his inaugural address, Americans kept faith in "our liberty and our creed" and in the sturdy tenets — work, courage, fairness, tolerance, patriotism — that guided the nation through other dark moments.
So did Obama, the child of a Kansas woman and a Kenyan man, take his own remarkable saga and weave it tightly into the American story.
He did it with almost Reaganesque rhetoric, which celebrated the historic change represented by his election, while attributing it to traditional American values.
"What is demanded … is a return to these truths," Obama told his fellow Americans, who must contemplate the economic wreckage and international dangers that afflict them. He stood there because of those ideals — proof of their power, he said.
And now there is work to do, the president told his people. It is time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, discard the "stale political arguments" of the past, and embrace not ideological whimsies, but what works.
It was fitting that the musical piece played by the all-star classical quartet at the Capitol toyed with the old Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," for this was a speech that urged us all to get on with the business of barn-raising.
There were echoes of the poet Carl Sandburg, another famous Chicagoan, in Obama's praise of the "risk takers, the doers, the makers of things," and of that other man of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, when Obama noted solemnly that "the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages."
There was the Rooseveltian nod to bold experimentation, and a Kennedyesque warning to foreign tyrants.
"Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy," Obama warned them. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history."
Yet though we will not negotiate out of fear, "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," Obama said.
Before him, from the platform on the western side of the Capitol, a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people — so many waving American flags that the Mall seemed to shift and shimmer — stretched for more than a mile.
"It was the most beautiful inauguration to look at in our history, I imagine — though the powdered wigs must have been something in George Washington's day," said Ted Widmer, a Brown University scholar and former speechwriter in the Clinton White House. "And it was a taut, muscular speech with both beautiful bits and a hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to government and what works."
Lee Huebner, who wrote speeches for Richard Nixon, watched from amid the crowd on the Mall, and thought the day was "quite dramatic. Everyone had a sense of the momentousness."
"Yet the speech went out of its way not to be very dramatic," said Huebner. "People were wondering if Obama could surpass the soaring elegance of his other speeches, and he decided not to try — it was a very realistic speech, and it is hard to be poetic when you are being so realistic. "The words were plain, often. It was about science and bridges and mortgaged homes," he said. "Yet always with a sense of change, a sense of mastery, and a willingness to take on hard paths and the hard work ahead."
And Robert Schlesinger, the author of "White House Ghosts," a history of presidential speechwriting, noted how few direct references Obama made to race, and how that made what was said more powerful.
There was no escaping what today's ceremonies meant to thousands of those gathered in Washington. Black America was amply represented, from the famous — Oprah, Beyonce, Denzel, Smokey, Jesse — in the prime seats, to the middle-class matrons in fur coats and Sunday hats who walked proudly with their husbands from Union Station up Capitol Hill, to the school children in fleece, down and denim who came on buses or airplanes from Texas, Missouri, North Carolina or New York, and were thrilled just to wander amid the pageantry on the Mall.
"This is a historic occasion," said Lance Kent, 32, who arrived with some 300 friends and neighbors in a convoy of seven buses from Wilson, N.C. They had driven all night to get to Washington, and would return this evening to save the costs of hotel rooms. "After African-Americans have been here 300 years, we're finally getting somebody in the White House."
"It's glorious," said Ezra Hill, 79, a member of a hearty contingent of the Tuskegee Airmen — Army Air Force fighter pilots and personnel who fought in World War II and helped integrate the armed forces — granted seats of honor, with other civil rights heroes, just below the dais.
Hill never thought he would see the day that a black president took the oath of office, not because white America was irresolutely biased, he said, but just because it took so long to change. He feared he would die before it happened.
"Everything took time. New assignments took time. Promotions took time," Hill said, remembering his career and the obstacles they faced. "But now the time has come."
To his worldwide audience, Obama vowed to return to, and to honor, those classic American principles: the "sturdy alliances and enduring convictions" that helped defeat fascism and communism.
"Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake," Obama said, in a thinly veiled rap at actions taken by George W. Bush, who sat on the dais behind him.
Yet to "those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents," Obama warned that "our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness," Obama said, "and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass."
After all, Obama said, what can't be accomplished by a people who have so transformed the world that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."