Religious Figures, Kennedy, Oprah Nab Hot Inauguration Seats

A diverse group warmed the front row seats.

Jan. 20, 2009— -- It was a politically star-studded event.

From friends to dignitaries to former rivals, an array of political stars dotted the coveted front-row seats at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Being invited by the president-to-be and his family is no small honor, and it is also important for the future first family to selectively choose the group who will occupy the front-row seats.

"The simple fact that they give a ticket to one person and not others ... becomes tremendously important," said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "You are setting up a historic tableau. ... Each one of them [the guests] is carrying a different part of the narrative, not just your personal narrative but being weaved into the political narrative of United States history."

Minus the Secret Service guarding the Obamas, it was mostly a family event in the reviewing stand from where the first family watched the parade roll down Pennsylvania Avenue. Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson and his family joined the Obamas; as well as Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half sister, and her family; Auma Obama, the president's other half sister; Said Obama, the brother of the president's deceased Kenyan father, and his wife Akinye Obama. The Bidens also occupied the front row with their own family and friends.

Other digintaries in the forefront included Bill and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Obamas' friend and staff member Valerie Jarrett.

Nominees for the Cabinet, members of Martin Luther King's family and senators also sat in the bulletproof reviewing stand.

Watching President Obama's swearing in up and close and personal were the usual suspects -- former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George Bush and George W. Bush. Obama's entourage was also present, including economic adviser Larry Summers, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, White House adviser Valerie Summers and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, along with other Obama team members.

But among those who stood out, Caroline Kennedy -- a contender for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat -- was seen watching the inaugural action from the front, and was at one point seen greeting Oprah Winfrey, who was present, of course.

A wide array of religious figures also added to the atmosphere and complemented Obama's speech in which he proclaimed that "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers." Among the religious dignitaries were Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

One celebrity guest in the front row invited by the Obama team stood out especially on the list -- Muhammad Ali, the three-time World Heavyweight Champion, who has Parkinson's disease, made his way slowly to the VIP seating area with his entourage. Ali celebrated his birthday Tuesday by paying tribute to the president at an inaugural event Monday night.

Kezia Obama, Obama's stepmother -- along with several other Obamas from Kenya -- were also on the guest list. Obama's stepmother flew in with a large Kenyan delegation especially for the inauguration. The group will hold a large unofficial ball on inauguration night in celebration.

Politician-turned-documentary filmmaker Al Gore was also present, along with another politician who recently grabbed headlines for his potential involvement in Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's scandal, Jesse Jackson Jr.

A small group of Congress members were, of course, also at the forefront of activities. That group included Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Harry Reid, D-Nev., Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Reps. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and John Boehner, R-Ohio. This bipartisan group accompanied Obama, Joe Biden and their families from the morning service to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony and stood on the steps as Obama and Biden escorted the Bushes out of the Capitol. Following the inauguration, the group hosted a lunch for the Obamas and Bidens.

Hollywood Comes Out

Droves of celebrities also came out to watch Obama being sworn in -- in addition to Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Jay-Z, John Cusack, Magic Johnson, Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington and singer Smokey Robinson were just some of the other stars in the elite VIP area.

Other celebrities were not so lucky. Courtney Cox was spotted among the unticketed masses. Actor Josh Lucas was also seen at a separate site in Washington. And celebrity of the moment, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who crash-landed the plane into the Hudson River last week, was also spotted in the general crowd.

Director Spike Lee -- who looked slightly cold -- was there with his wife and told ABC News' Robin Roberts that the day means a lot to him and that he felt the presence of his ancestors.

As the Obamas attended prayer services at St. John's Church in Lafayette Square, this morning, Denzel Washington arrived early for the swearing in ceremony. The Hollywood star -- who also spoke at the "We Are One" concert on Sunday -- was seen being flanked by fans in the podium seating area.

"It's an optimistic day, it's a hopeful day. It's a cold day. But you know, it's just a vibe. A good feeling. You know, everybody's in it together," Washington told ABC News. "I am hopeful. I am full of hope. You know, I feel that we can only go up from here. United. If we're all together, if we work together and respect our civic duty. I think we can go a long way together. But we all have to be engaged. It's not about just the president and what he says and what he does, it's about all of us."

Memorable Moments

Past presidents have understood the importance of this gesture. Ronald Reagan invited Tip O'Neill to his 1981 inauguration ceremony despite their differences that would continue to increase over Reagan's presidency. At John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural ceremony, the presence of former presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson painted a diverse political picture that resonates up till today.

Obama already took some heat from gay and lesbian groups for inviting the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, but his group today was a diverse mix.

The throngs of crowds that flooded all over from the country to watch the first African-American president taking the oath of office made this the largest inauguration in history, with more than 1.5 million estimated to be in attendance. Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 inauguration drew a record crowd of 1.2 million. Four years earlier, John F. Kennedy's inauguration -- blanketed in snow -- attracted approximately 1 million.

With the world looking on, it is important to set the stage to reflect the historic importance that this moment bears.

"It needs to be used carefully and effectively so that you can turn all this symbolic hour into real political opportunity and power," Troy said. "The inauguration has to be an opportunity of looking forward to starting the presidency."