Time Capsule: What we didn't know the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated


Time capsule: This is a recurring Floridian magazine feature that allows readers to re-experience some of the Tampa Bay Times' best stories with the wisdom of hindsight. So what didn't we know the day of President Barack Obama's inauguration that we know now? Floridian asked Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith.

"We didn't know that Washington would wind up, eight years later, at least as broken as when he came. His promise of post-partisanship … that sure didn't happen. He promised change, and we certainly got change. He accomplished a health care law that people had been trying since Harry Truman. … I think we got, in the end, the classy, dignified guy that he seemed to be during the campaign. I can't think of any president in my lifetime where there's been less scandal in the White House than with him. We got through a really treacherous economy, but we didn't get past the widespread anxiety and nervousness about where we are as a country and what we're going to be able to leave to our kids."

As for how this month's inauguration will differ from the one captured in this story: "It will be a lot whiter, I suspect. … It's going to be a very grand, grand affair. … We're going to see it's a country at least as divided as it was (in 2009). I gather there were protests, because people say there were, but you're going to have a giant march against Trump the day after. Who knows what you're going to have that day?"

Published Jan. 20, 2009

They stir in their seats.

Adam and Helen Marsh occupy matching recliners at Regal Palms, an assisted-living home in Largo. They're fixed on the television. They wait for Barack Obama to become president.

"Let's get on with it," says Helen, 72.

But before the main event, there is pomp — a procession of notable people, of politicians, pundits and pastors.

Across the bay at the Tampa Theatre, celebrants serenade an image of George W. Bush: "Na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye." They cheer when NBC shows moving vans outside the White House. They scream for troops at Camp Victory in Iraq.

In Tarpon Springs, Pete Edgar nestles in the small, cozy living quarters of his live-aboard boat named Driftwood, which is docked in the Anclote River. Edgar is 66, a former sponge diver who has faith in Obama to turn the country around.

"It's our last shot," he says. "We're kind of going down the tubes here."

Obama appears on screen.

All around Tampa Bay, there are wails. Applause. Tears. Grumbles from the opposition and skepticism from the unconverted.

There's no turning back.

"There he is," cries Ruby Williams, an artist and potato and string bean farmer in Bealsville. She leans forward on her faded couch and pumps her fists in the air. "He is so tired, but he looks good. Lord help him!"

In Washington, the Rev. Rick Warren takes the lectern and calls for prayer.

Peggy Elias obliges, folding her hands on the counter of Shirley & Lee's Soul Food in St. Petersburg. Elias wears an Obama ball cap and an anti-Bush shirt.

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name …

In Spring Hill, residents of Atria Evergreen Woods senior community sing the national anthem. One voice rings louder than the rest. Paula Simpson, 83, was the only black child in a neighborhood of white families, the only black student in her school. Today she is the only black resident of nearly 200 people at her home.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight …

Just before noon, Joe Biden becomes vice president.

Then Obama touches the Bible.

Ty Forman, 11, with skin the color of unsweetened cocoa, stands tall in his class at Lomax Elementary in Tampa. He holds one arm up, the other resting on an imaginary book. He mouths the words.

I will execute the office …

Hundreds attending a lunch at St. Petersburg's Coliseum toss their forks of pasta and erupt into cheers. Sharon Melville, in gold shoes, red lipstick and socks with stars, feels a wallop of emotion so powerful she needs to grab her knees to keep from doubling to the ground.

My fellow citizens …

The Tampa Theatre goes quiet.

The Coliseum goes quiet.

The schools and retirement homes and houses go quiet.

The new president speaks about the economy, the world and the challenges that lie ahead. He recalls his father, a Kenyan man. Sixty years ago, he says, he would have been denied service at a restaurant.

All are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

At the Tampa Theatre, Jessica Sherrill, 34, raises both hands above her head and claps.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Her daughter, Daija Sherrill, is 9. She has been peeking at the screen while her mom says amen with closed eyes. Daija waves a placard of Obama's face.

With eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations …

Meghan Poole-Van Swol holds her son, Beckett, born on Election Day. She lifts him to her shoulder and pats his back, thinking that America has considered the plight of the world, not just itself.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

At the Coliseum, the noise drops to nothing. They watch Obama walk away, wondering what comes next.

Dispatched throughout the community to gather scenes for this report were Hayes and staff writers Justin George, Rita Farlow, Demorris Lee, Mike Brassfield, Janet Zink, Curtis Krueger, Letitia Stein and Andrew Meacham, and photographers Brendan Fitterer, Ron Thompson, James Borchuck, Will Vragovic, Michael C. Weimar, Keri Wiginton, Scott Keeler, Jim Damaske, Douglas R. Clifford, Skip O'Rourke, Stephen J. Coddington, Melissa Lyttle, Kathleen Flynn, Chris Zuppa, Cherie Diez, Bill Serne and Lara Cerri.