The constitution specifies only that the President take an oath of 35 words. It says nothing about parades or Inaugural balls or rock concerts. The challenge in a democracy is that you don't want a coronation (too much pomp and circumstance), but you do want to mark a change, a passing of the torch from one President to another. After all, it's "democracy's big day," as George Bush 41 called it in his unpretentious way: the orderly and peaceful transfer of power that is the foundation of the republic. Yes, it's mostly symbolic, but symbols matter.
In 1961, when TIME showed on the cover a photograph of John F. Kennedy taking the oath of office as the nation's 35th President, it was the first time we had put a presidential Inauguration on the magazine's cover. At the time, it was also the fastest cover close in the magazine's history. The photo was shot and processed in Washington in about three hours, then the art director took the transparencies on a plane to Chicago, where they were taken to TIME's central printing plant, where a color engraving was produced. Then those images were taken by air to printing plants in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and Albany, N.Y. All in all, about 36 hours. Now it's almost instantaneous and done completely digitally.
On the day Kennedy was inaugurated, a rare snowstorm had descended on Washington, blanketing the city with about eight inches of snow. We put J.F.K.'s Inauguration on the cover because it seemed like a break from the past, a new beginning--not just a ceremony or a quadrennial ritual. Kennedy was both the symbol and the embodiment of a new generation of American leadership. President Barack Obama's Inauguration feels the same way--and not just because he is the first African-American President. Right now, Americans seem hopeful and anxious, perhaps in equal measure, making this moment seem like the beginning of a future that is yet to be defined.
I walked around Washington the day before the Inauguration, and the spirit in the city felt like a calm celebration of democracy--people walking around their capital, celebrating their President, marking their victory. But it did not feel like a victory of party or partisanship so much as a celebration of the simplest and yet most transcendent act of citizenship--going into a voting both and pulling a lever and honoring the result.
Our cover story, capturing the singular, historic day, is by the great Joe Klein, whose cover story in October 2006 presciently suggested how Obama might become President. Now Joe discusses how Obama may usher in a new era of political civility. We also feature a photographic notebook by TIME photographer Callie Shell, whose behind-the-scenes photographs of Obama and his family have given our readers a special insight into the man and reveal what you can't see on television. This was her fifth Inauguration, and she says she had never experienced anything like it. She said Obama was moved by the scene on the Mall--which you can see in her images. The day is planned and plotted down to the second, but what Callie captures is unscripted and unrehearsed.
Richard Stengel, MANAGING EDITOR