Under the gaze of Abraham Lincoln's imposing statue, Bruce Springsteen belted out "Come on up for the rising," a martial band right below him, a gospel choir right behind him. Flags were everywhere. It was a signature snapshot of rock, race and tradition intermingled, just one piece of Americana on Sunday as some of the biggest names in show business commanded the marbled sweep of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a vast sea of people — and four dancing Obamas. U2, Beyonce, James Taylor, Garth Brooks and Usher were among the A-list performers who served as opening acts for a president-elect ascending to the White House in two days. Several hundred thousand people flanked the reflecting pool, filling the Mall past the World War II Memorial and back to the Washington Monument. They transformed a historical staging ground of protest into a roaring celebration. They cheered for Obama's arrival. They cheered for each high-energy act and for the two magnificent bald eagles that stretched and flapped their wings on cue from their handlers on the stage. They cheered for Obama when he asserted, "The dream of our founders will live on in our time." U.S. Park Police Chief Sal Lauro said the crowd appeared to be similar in size to the one that rang in the millennium on New Year's Eve nine years ago. An estimated 300,000 people attended that event. All the checkpoints surrounding the area were closed before the show began because of concerns about crowding, Lauro said. He said crowd was well-behaved. There was no red carpet, but the event had the feel of a Hollywood awards ceremony, with stars taking the stage to praise, serenade and even impersonate the next president. Their music was loud, their faces enlarged on jumbo TV screens for the masses in the distance, all under a gray sky. "I want to be in that picture of history," said Caryn Lustig, 27, of Arlington, Va., explaining why she came four hours early. "I want to say I was that little speck behind the tree." She wore a "Yes We Did" button. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their girls sat with Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, behind bulletproof glass near the stage erected on the steps of the memorial. Helicopters overhead cut through the thick air. Military Humvees blocked street corners. Imposing columns of portable potties lined the National Mall at the service of the multitudes.
The "We Are One" celebration began with Springsteen, dressed in black, singing "The Rising," with the help of the red-gowned choir. He took a song best known as a call to action following the 2001 terrorist attacks and used it to usher in a new era in politics. Denzel Washington was the first celebrity to speak, telling the crowd, "We come here knowing that we are all in this together." Tom Hanks, who as Forrest Gump famously gave a speech at the monument steps and jumped into the reflecting pool, this time appeared in a dark suit and read a somber tribute to Lincoln. Jamie Foxx brought many in the crowd — and the Obamas — to their feet by repeatedly urging those from Chicago to make some noise: "Chi-town, stand up!" he demanded. Foxx then launched into a quick impersonation of the president-elect. The Obamas rose and danced when Stevie Wonder, Usher and Shakira pumped out Wonder's classic "Higher Ground." Brooks' thumping rendition of "Shout!" was supported by a massive choir wearing red and blue jackets against the cold. "America, we are one," Beyonce told the crowd after singing a closing rendition of "America, the Beautiful."
The words of other presidents were invoked from the stage — from Ronald Reagan back. John Kennedy's call to national service and Franklin Roosevelt's appeal to face down fear were played to the throngs. The concert came on the eve of the day that honors Martin Luther King Jr., which itself precedes the inauguration by one day. Obama's imminent historic achievement in becoming the first black president was celebrated on the same steps where King famously imagined a "table of brotherhood" of white and black. In that "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963, he never quite imagined this.