WASHINGTON – For once, the drumbeats of division receded and Americans of every ornery opinion gathered to witness history unfold in President Barack Obama's second-term inauguration.
Hours before Monday's pageantry, people on foot spilled out of Metro stations near the White House and streamed toward the festivities, official vehicles sealed off intersections blocks from the White House and Obama stood for a blessing in the "Church of Presidents."
The service at St. John's Episcopal Church captured the intended tone of the day: unity. Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church spoke in the blessing of "this new season of opportunity after conflicting opinions and visions and platforms clanged against each other like a resounding gong. "
A sea of people filled stretches of the National Mall from the West Front of the Capitol back to the Washington Monument and beyond, to the reflecting pool. No one expected a repeat of the unprecedented crowds of four years ago, nor quite the same adrenaline-pumping excitement. But for many thousands, it was not to be missed.
David Richardson, 45, brought his children, Camille, 5, and Miles, 8, from Atlanta to soak it all in and to show them, in Obama's achievement, that "anything is possible through hard work."
The "mostly Republican" Vicki Lyons, 51, of Lakewood, Colo., called the experience "surreal" and "like standing in the middle of history."
She didn't vote for Obama and voiced plenty of worry about the nation's future but said: "No matter who the president is, everybody needs to do this at least once."
Outside the Capitol, scene of Obama's noontime inaugural speech, people had their pictures taken with the flag-draped building in the background. It was cool with a steady breeze, but the crowd was spared the biting cold of four years earlier.
Kenya Strong, a 37-year-old financial analyst from Charlotte, N.C, brought her daughter, Ty, for the second time. Like Richardson, she said the event holds lessons for the young.
"It's really important for her to understand that her potential is endless," she said. "You have so much to live and look forward to, for yourself personally, for our country — just to see that there's more than the here and now."
Ty Strong, now 15, toted a new camera and broader expectations than in 2009 about the kind of people she'd meet — not just African-Americans like herself.
"There were a lot of different faces among the crowd that you don't expect to see on an everyday basis — like more foreigners," she said. "It was nice."
At midmorning, Metro subway trains through downtown Washington were no more crowded than they would be on a typical workday — except few were going to work. Although transit officials urged riders coming in from the suburbs not to change trains, passengers had little trouble switching at the busy Metro Center station.
Terry Alexander, a Democratic state representative from South Carolina, and his wife, Starlee Alexander, were taking a leisurely ride from their downtown hotel to Union Station. Four years ago, they had to ride a bus to the Pentagon from their Virginia hotel and walk across the 14th Street Bridge to the National Mall.
"It was crazy," he said. "This is calm. Last time, we couldn't even get down in the tunnel to get to the trains."
Obama's motorcade went into motion several hours before the speech, taking him with his family to St. John's Episcopal Church. Before the sermon, R&B performer Ledisi sang the solo "I Feel Like Goin' On."
On recent visits to the "Church of Presidents," Obama has taken to ditching the motorcade in favor of walking back to the White House through Lafayette Park.
But this was a day for a speech, a parade and the decorative rituals of power, not an idle stroll.
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner, Alan Fram, Darlene Superville, Ben Nuckols, David Dishneau and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.