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Inaugural Diary: Eyewitness To History, One Cold Step At A Time

RFE/RL's associate director for visual media, Ricki Green, traveled to the U.S. capital to take in the atmosphere around the transfer of power to the country's 44th president. Green attended pre-inauguration events and then joined more than a million Americans who turned up on the National Mall and around the nation's capital to watch first-hand the inauguration of Barack Obama. She filed this video diary.

January 19

The day before The Day: the inauguration of Barack H. Obama as president of the United States.

Americans are always friendly. But in the pre-inaugural days, it might be considered excessive. Strangers are talking and smiling at each other for no good reason.

During the inaugural mega-concert yesterday at the majestic Lincoln Memorial, concertgoers sang together, hugged each other, and were models of racial and ethnic harmony. Maybe it's because the concert was headlined "We Are One." The giddy spectators seemed to take it seriously.

Inaugural Concert Mood
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Tonight at a Jazz Concert at the Kennedy Center, the brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and musician Wynton Marsalis, the guests are fashionable and elegant in an artsy way, but -- even more stunning -- it is half black and half white and I don't mean the dresses.

At one point, it dawns on me that the social "A-list" is about to get an extreme makeover, and this event is just a preview. This city has always had a small but substantial, affluent African-American middle-class that mixed only modestly with the social elite. With a new African-American president in the White House, the social scene is in for a welcome change, to be mixed racially like a deck of cards.

"We Are One." Have racial barriers finally been shattered? Well, at least tonight they were.

January 20

The early morning is numbingly cold.

Vendors are selling hand-warmers and T-shirts as people make their way across oddly empty streets as they head to the National Mall stretching from the United States Capitol to the Washington Monument and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. It is here that we have inaugurated our new leaders and buried our dead ones. It is the one place in America that that can be counted on to host a shared national experience, and that is what's happening today.

Many people arrive near the Mall at 6 a.m. to get in line for entrance onto the grounds or to line up along the traditional parade route. In either case, it will be from six to nine hours of waiting in below-freezing temperatures.

Ticket holders should have the best views, close to the swearing-in area at the west end of the Capitol facing the mall. At least they thought they would have the best view. But security fears have won out, and many ticket holders and thousands of ordinary attendees are, literally, left out in the cold.

For a while it looked like I would be one of them. By the time I arrive a few blocks from the edge of the Mall, the crowds have stopped moving toward the Mall and are wandering aimlessly. I find a police officer who says it is no longer possible to get down to the Mall from there, directing me and others several blocks away to the Third Street tunnel -- usually a highway -- that will take us to the other end of the Mall, about 2 miles away. Hundreds of people descend into the tunnel although that was not part of anyone's plan.

Inauguration - Crowds In Tunnel, In Line
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I ask a well-dressed couple if they are getting impatient with the delays. Anthony Browne, an African-American from California, replies: "I've waited for this day for 12 generations. I can walk a little further and wait a little longer."

I find out a bit later that at least 1,000 ticket holders like Browne were never admitted through the security checkpoints to the Mall after waiting for hours, and were given no explanation other than "security concerns." Joy gave way to dashed expectations for people who had come hundreds or thousands of miles to see Barack Obama take the oath of office.

Inauguration Vox Pops
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(Video by author, with additional video by Reuters)

As for me, after emerging from the tunnel I am told to walk down the Mall not far from where I had started my journey. Others trudge in the same direction, confused but obedient. Frantically I wave my press pass at a D.C. police officer. This has not helped me one bit all morning, but suddenly this officer, seeing my desperation, takes pity on me and opens the police barrier to allow me to enter the Mall. It is 11:30 a.m. and the inaugural ceremonies are beginning.

There I am, in the Promised Land. Smack in the middle of the Mall with the inaugural stage in sight. The section is almost empty aside from a few hundred ticket holders. That's when I realized I must be in the "promised land" -- promised to all those ticket holders who had been turned away!

Those who have made it to this hallowed ground don't seem to realize their good fortune. They are a happy and expectant bunch. When the former U.S. presidents are escorted to their seats, they especially applaud Bill Clinton and his wife, Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton. When then-President George W. Bush and his vice President Dick Cheney arrive they turn partisan.

"Time to go. So long!" they taunt.

Crowds Cheering On The Mall
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Many mist up when Barack Obama becomes The President. They listen respectfully and somberly to his inaugural address, joy tempered by the grim realities that face the new president -- and all of us. They bow their heads in prayer at the closing benediction and then begin to file away.

But to where? Now you can't get off the mall! The barriers that kept us out now keep us in. People head in all directions, like mice seeking cheese, gravitating toward where people seem to be moving. There is a small break in the fence on the south side of the Mall. I leave the Promised Land to wander through the very cold desert once again and find the only way back is the Third Street Tunnel. By now the "Yes, we can!" spirit has flagged -- people are dragging, shuffling slowly, some painfully, back through the tunnel.

Inauguration - Street Dance
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My toes are freezing and my hands are numb.

I think of the Buddhist saying about life being "a journey, not a destination." But today, with the inauguration of America's 44th president, I don't believe it. Today it was the destination that mattered, in spite of the long and painful journey.