WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital welcomed its newest residents to town yesterday with lights, music, celebrities, every bell and whistle it could dream up -- and a crush of Democrats bent on making up for lost time.
Hundreds of thousands of people, from as far as Santa Barbara, Calif., and Springfield, Mo., descended on the Mall yesterday, jamming the grounds from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial where the Clintons and Gores stepped off the bus and onto their new home turf.
As dusk fell on the stately Lincoln statue, spectators lined both sides of the Reflecting Pool about a hundred deep to try to get a glimpse of an all-star show that ranged from the solemn and sacred to the very slick, from Tony Bennett to rapper L. L. Cool J, Lauren Bacall to Whoopi Goldberg.
With its mix of music and Democracy, picnicking and celebrating, this was a grown-up, dressed-up, hyped-up Woodstock on the Mall.
Although muffled sounds went out on loudspeakers for miles -- Is that Jack Nicholson? -- much of the crowd, estimated by the National Park Service at 300,000, couldn't see a thing, not even on the giant video screens above the stage that showed the Clintons swaying to the music.
Some visitors climbed atop trees. Some atop portable johns. Some gave up and went home to watch TV.
But to most, the view -- or nonview -- hardly mattered. Being there was what mattered.
"It's about time," shouted Jane Spencer of Washington, who had bells on her shoelaces, her buttons, her pocketbook. "This is the first time in my voting life it's meant anything to me. I don't care that I can't see anything."
"This is more fun than the last 12 years all together," said Chuck Roberts, a Washington computer engineer. "We're a half-mile away from the stage, but we're 2,000 miles closer than people on the West Coast."
Most of the crowd, caught up in the made-for-TV pageantry that ended with the 6 p.m. bell-ringing at the gateway to Arlington Cemetery and fireworks, was largely oblivious to the other fireworks of the day, the U.S. bombing of Iraq.
Mr. Roberts said he thought he'd heard some rumblings about it earlier in the day, but figured that he, like the president-elect, would think about it later.
The mild, sometimes sunny, winter day brought out hordes of families and students to the "Reunion on the Mall" earlier in the day, a folk festival of music, crafts and food, and one of the few events where no tickets, no passes, no friends in high places were needed.
By noon, the Mall, with huge white heated tents that reached from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, was gridlocked with locals and tourists, Bill Clinton look-alikes, Chelsea's former nanny and other Arkansans, Socks fans wearing in "Hail to the Cat" T-shirts -- and Demcrats who didn't want to wait a minute longer before celebrating.
"This is the end of 12 years of despondency," said Sara Morgan of Arlington, a college English teacher. "I hid out and cried in '88 and '84."
"Because I sat home and watched the Kennedy inaugural on TV, I really wanted to be a part of this one," said Sheila Vaughan of Laurel, Md. "We're viewing Wednesday as really the beginning of the new year."
Everywhere, visitors were reminded of the fact that a "populist" leader was about to take office. Inside the tents were huge photographs of Mr. Clinton hugging babies, Mr. Clinton with the the underprivileged, Mr. Clinton as a regular guy on the beach.
Following the Clinton creed, diversity was to be the watchword at the "Reunion," patterned after the state folk festivals the Clintons have thrown at the governor's mansion in Little Rock at their gubernatorial inaugurals.
If any food or music genre was missing, you'd be hard-pressed to name it. If you could squeeze into a tent you'd find everything from fajitas to fusilli to falafel, from Linda Ronstadt and her mariachi band to Broadway musical numbers to Little Feat's southern rock 'n' roll, from lei makers to lacrosse stick carvers.
But unlike the late afternoon concert which did indeed look like America, the "Reunion" crowd was surprisingly homogenous -- a predominantly white, suburban crowd of down jackets and blue jeans, baby strollers and camcorders.
This was the Clinton generation. Young. Verging on hip.
"I'm positively ecstatic. I'm feeling middle-aged, but this is really making me feel younger," said Julia Andrews of Alexandria, Va., dancing in place to Buckwheat Zydeco with her 1-year-old daughter on her shoulders.
Aron Kay of Brooklyn, N.Y., recalled coming to Washington in 1973 for the Nixon inauguration, a "yippy" back then who held a 6-foot tall model of a rat. This year he held his 6-year-old daughter, Rachel.
Although the day turned chilly, you could count the fur coats on one hand. And some politically correct Democrats, like Jennifer Braverman and her 12-year-old daughter, did.
"I saw three women in fancy, full-length fur coats," said the Arlington, Va., homemaker. "I was going to tell these people that, hey, the Democrats are in."
Many well-wishers, especially children, sent the soon-to-be president a message on a sprawling "wall of hopes and wishes" that stood in the middle of the Mall. "Dear Bill, I'm so happy you got elected. I think you are much cooler than George," wrote Brad Hooper of Providence, R.I. "Economic Recovery!" wrote Mary Gustaveson of Seattle, Wash.
Ali Dirshe, walked up to the board and quietly posted his wish: "Don't forget the children in Somalia." Mr. Dirshe, a Somalian who's lived in Silver Spring for the last three years said he hadn't been able to communicate with relatives there in years.
College students, many from Georgetown University, Mr. Clinton's alma mater, lined up at the beer booth and said they felt like this was a party they could relate to.
"Clinton's really like trying to like get in touch with people our age," said Alison White, a sophomore at Georgetown, listening to Blues Traveler, a bluesy rock band that's one of her favorites. "Blues Traveler is like a total college band. Like my parents have no clue."
Even for Jonell Urbaniak of Lanham, Md. -- closer to the George Bush generation -- this was the first time she'd ever come to Washington for an inaugural event, though she's lived in the area for 30 years. "I thought this was special," she said, eyeing the grilled quail and wondering if it might be the outgoing vice president.
But many -- both Democrats and Republicans alike who came out yesterday to check out the festivities -- were reserving judgment.
"Clinton's already started goofing up," said Susan Harlem of Washington, sampling the stuffed eggs from Jean-Louis of Watergate. "We're feeling more realistic than euphoric." Even party affiliation got lost in the bigger party yesterday. "I voted for Bush, but I'm optimistic," said Charlene O'Neil, a San Francisco high school administrator who came to town for the inaugural with a group.
"I voted for Clinton but I'm pessimistic," laughed Mark Vollmer, a Washington real estate appraiser, standing next to the Republican on the muddy grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.
Both listened as the familiar words of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address eerily echoed through the mall, bringing tears to some eyes, along with a clip from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at this same place nearly three decades ago.
"I wonder if anything said here today is going to be quoted 20 or 30 years from now," wondered Mr. Vollmer.