January 21, 2009 / 2:25 PM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: Human moments watching Obama become President

Jeff Mason is a Reuters White House correspondent. A native of Colorado, he joined Reuters in October 2000 in Frankfurt, Germany, where he spent three years before transferring to Brussels to cover the European Union. Last year he returned to the United States to follow the presidential campaign and in the following story, he recounts some unexpected scenes in the ceremonies around U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Jeff is still thawing out.

Reuters reporter Jeff Mason smiles as then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama addresses journalists on his campaign plane in January 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Like any staged event, Barack Obama’s transition to power on Tuesday had moments that caught people off guard.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was when the new president and his wife, Michelle, left the safety of their heavy-duty limousine to walk part of the way back from the U.S. Capitol to the White House.

“He’s getting out! He’s getting out!” correspondents on the open, flat-bed truck where I was riding shouted as the couple left the car to wave at the crowds and walk in the street in the direction of their new home.

Secret Service members watched as spectators roared with delight. The first couple, holding hands, appeared to relish being out with the crowds who had braved the cold to come and witness a part of history.

As a member of the traveling press pool on inauguration day, I saw a handful of those surprising and sometimes intimate moments up-close.

The day started early. Journalists gathered near the Obamas’ temporary quarters at 7:15 a.m. for a security sweep and then watched as family members left the house on their way to an early service at St John’s Church.

When the future president came out with his wife, he helped her into the waiting limo before walking to his side to get in.

Beneath the stained glass windows of the Episcopal church, Joel Hunter, one of the pastors who spoke, exhorted people sitting near Obama to reach out and touch his arm or shoulder as part of a physical blessing.

I bet the Secret Service loved that.


Bishop Thomas Dexter Jakes, who gave the sermon, parroted a line the former Illinois senator often used on the campaign trail. “The problems are mighty and the solutions are not simple, and everywhere you turn there will be a critic,” Jakes said. “But you are all fired up, sir, and you are ready to go.”

It was his next line that got people talking.

“I say to you as my son who is here today — my 14-year-old son — he probably would not quote Scripture. He probably would use ‘Star Trek’ instead, and so I say, ‘May the force be with you.’”

The reference was actually to “Star Wars.”

Next stop: the White House, where the Obamas joined outgoing President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, for a traditional tea. I craned my neck to see through the window of the press van as the two men came out of the White House. They paused and smiled before leaving together.

Then the presidential motorcade snaked through the streets of downtown Washington, D.C., to the Capitol, driving by shrieking crowds, some of whom carried signs that said “Arrest Bush.”

Once at the Capitol, though, the reporters covering Obama’s every move were ushered into a Senate building to watch the swearing-in ceremony — on television.

Slideshow (2 Images)

But we got that up-close view back soon enough. While Obama spoke, the press pool moved to the rear of the Capitol to prepare for Bush’s departure. After the inaugural ceremony, the new and former first couples embraced — that was a surprise — before Bush and his wife boarded the helicopter and took off.

Then it was time for the ride back to the White House. Reporters gathered on truck beds to be part of the parade, shivering in the frigid temperatures and waving back to some in the crowd who mistook us for being famous. Do the famous wear long underwear? I’m glad I had mine on for that chilly journey.

When the president and first lady got out to walk, I grabbed my own digital camera. I’m not a photographer, but this was one for the history books — and the scrap books, too.

Editing by Frances Kerry and Sara Ledwith

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