WASHINGTON — Malia Obama peered out through the viewfinder of her camera from her perch on the inaugural podium. And what a view she had: A million or more people packed onto the National Mall, listening raptly to her father give his inaugural address.
One imagines it was a heady moment for Malia, 10, and sister Sasha, 7, these self-possessed and appealing youngsters who’ve already fascinated the country more than any presidential progeny since the Kennedys. Now they’re likely to fascinate us even more, as the youngest occupants of an invigorated new White House.
To no one’s great surprise, the girls were poised and collected on the podium, where they stood alongside their parents as Obama took the oath of office. Malia was more visible in the television coverage; She smiled confidently when she arrived with her grandmother, and seemed to offer her dad a few words of approval after his speech.
As befits bona fide tween celebrities who, just the night before, danced onstage with the Jonas Brothers, designers had been angling to dress the Obama girls for the inauguration.
Blue for Malia, pink for Sasha
Their mom chose J. Crew, the mall favorite that the new first lady occasionally patronizes for herself. Malia looked chic in a periwinkle-blue coat with a fluffy black wool scarf, and Sasha was more little-girl like in a light pink coat with an orange scarf and coral-colored dress.
And it was perhaps a sign of their uncommon fame that two inaugural speakers mentioned them directly: the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who called the girls “angelic” in his benediction, and evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who prayed for them in his invocation.
What were the girls thinking on the podium, one wondered? One former presidential daughter speculates that even at their young age, they understand the import of the moment and their role in it. “I think they recognize that they’re part of history,” said Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon B. Johnson.
“I imagine they’ll keep a level head, though the opposite can happen,” Robb said in an interview before the inauguration. “They certainly show a great affection for their father. And in that job, you need every bit of comfort you can get.”
Some found the very sight of the first black presidential children deeply moving. “I’m having a hard time looking at Sasha and Malia, I must say,” commented Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC host.
Ahead for the Obama girls on Tuesday: a chance to settle into their White House rooms for the first time.
Party and movies
NBC News reported that the girls and children of White House staffers would have a party at the White House while their parents attended various inaugural balls. The girls asked to watch the movies "High School Musical III" and "Bolt."
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When the girls stood next to their father during the oath, they were participating in only a recent tradition. Bill and Hillary Clinton began it in 1997 with daughter Chelsea, says Carl Sferazza Anthony, historian for the National First Ladies Library. George W. Bush followed suit with twin daughters Jenna and Barbara.
Amy Carter, then age 9, didn’t stand on the podium in 1977, but she did get to walk the parade route at front with her parents, who abandoned their limo in what was called the “People’s Inaugural.” Her brothers, Jack, Jeff and Chip, though, walked behind.
Kids weren’t always a part of inaugural ceremonies at all. The Kennedy kids, for all the attention on them, were not at the inauguration of their dad, John F. Kennedy. Caroline, 3, and John, an infant, were at the family home in Palm Beach, Fla.
Poignant moment in 1869
Anthony says it was in 1869 that a presidential child first had a public role. Little Nellie Grant ran to grasp the hand of her father, Ulysses S. Grant, just as he took the oath. The poignant moment was captured by a sketch artist for a weekly newspaper.
In a different kind of poignancy, Franklin Roosevelt relied on his eldest son James at his inaugurations to help him swing his legs in their iron braces so he could disguise his disability from the public, Anthony says.
There are also tragic tales. Just weeks before his father was sworn in 1853, Benjamin Pierce, 11, was killed in a freak train accident. Franklin Pierce canceled much of the inaugural pageantry and his grief-stricken wife didn’t attend at all.
And on a much lighter note, Anthony recalls that Charlie Taft, also 11, “was not at all impressed” as his father, William Howard Taft, took the oath of office in 1909: “He was entirely engrossed in reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, ’Treasure Island.”’
NBC News contributed to this story.