Washington has managed to host many massive gatherings, but the capital city was utterly overwhelmed on Tuesday as thousands of would-be witnesses to history were unable to get within sight of even the jumbo TV screens that lined the National Mall.
A cold wind whipped litter along the city's broad boulevards that were thronged with pedestrians who couldn't reach the Mall. Many celebrants with tickets to official viewing sites were denied entry through gates that were blocked off hours before President Barack Obama swore his oath of office.
But the disappointments and inconveniences, which included 10-deep queues for portable potties, did not diminish the general jubilation. Spectators remained in high spirits on what was, after all, a sunny day.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch watched from seats on the platform where Obama spoke. Both the Vermont lawmakers said they were stunned by the size of the crowd, which neither was able to see in its entirety.
"I saw people standing shoulder-to-shoulder all the way to the Washington Monument, which is well over a mile," Welch said. "There were more people out there than in the state of Vermont."
Sanders called the spectacle "unbelievable." He said the inauguration marks "an extraordinary day in the history of the United States."
Both Welch and Sanders gave Obama's address good reviews despite its thin substance and the absence of any JFK-style catch-lines. Obama "very clearly included criticisms of the recent past" as he went about "re-introducing America to the world," Welch said.
Vermont's lone House member isn't willing to forgive and forget the deeds of the previous president. That much buzzed-about "change" may take a while to arrive, Welch suggested, due to "the destruction Bush and Cheney have left behind them. They really did wreck almost everything they touched," he added, citing the economy, civil liberties and the United States' standing in the world.
Sanders says Bush should be held accountable for his alleged crimes, just as Wall Streeters should be made to pay for the collapse of the U.S. financial system.
Taking a tougher line on Bush than that put forward by Obama in recent days, Sanders called for a congressional investigation of "what may have constituted illegal behavior."
The senator did voice optimism about the $850 billion economic recovery plan that Obama and the Democratic Congress have begun to fashion. Sanders points out that it includes more investments in clean energy and primary health care than in all of U.S. history. "In this one document, you're seeing something Bush wouldn't have done if he'd been in office for 100 years."
Sanders and Welch are attending the New England states' inaugural ball tonight in architecturally elegant Union Station. I'm covering an all-Africa ball at a hotel across the Potomac in Virginia. Obama's Kenyan grannie is going to be there, so maybe the prez himself will show up.