Credit: Robert Ullman

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<1>By the time we got to Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell wrote and sang, “we were half a million strong.”

Oh, no, you weren’t, Joni. Rock history’s most famous festival drew somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. But “half a million strong” flows so much better than “four-tenths of a million strong.”

And, on the subject of crowds, size matters.

That’s why big and irrational numbers were being thrown around about Barack Obama’s inauguration attendance long before it even happened.

In November, just after Obama’s election, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty declared that “3 to 5 million” folks were coming to town to celebrate the new president. During a Meet the Press appearance over the weekend, Fenty was asked to defend his estimates, and he said that he came up with the number because the Mall “can hold somewhere in that range.” He added, “If anybody can fill it, Barack Obama can.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) took to the floor of the House on Nov. 17 and said “more than 1.5 million people” could show up for the inauguration. Feinstein needed a “Wow!” number: She was trying to drum up interest in a bill that would have banned the scalping of tickets to inauguration events and send secondhand ticket sellers—or, as Feinstein called them, “scam artists and profiteers”—to jail for as long as a year.

That bill went nowhere. So Feinstein upped the ante. On Dec. 10, she issued an open letter to D.C. officials in which she put the possible inauguration crowd at “4 million people.” This time around, Feinstein wanted attention for her opposition to the D.C. Council’s proposal to extend drinking hours in the city to 5 a.m. during the inaugural weekend.

Carole Florman, a spokesperson for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, says Feinstein got the estimates from “law enforcement agencies.”

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the Secret Service is planning for a crowd of 1.5 million. As to where that number came from, well, they ain’t called the Secret Service for nothing: The agency’s media office did not respond to requests for that information.

It’s generally accepted that the biggest inauguration crowd in U.S. history came with Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 swearing-in, which drew an estimated 1.2 million.

And John Catoe, head of Metro, recently told the Associated Press that he thinks this inauguration will bring in the “largest crowd ever.”

Now it’s simple for Metro to benchmark its ridership—the transit agency can easily count how many folks pass through its turnstiles. But as to whether BHO will outdo LBJ in sheer spectators, we may never know.

That’s because counting crowds has caused trouble around these parts. Just ask Butch Street.

“When people care about these numbers,” says Street, “they care very deeply.”

Street is a management analyst for the Public Use Statistics Office of the National Park Service, as well as the agency’s go-to crowd counter. Since 1980, he’s been estimating attendance at federal park lands across the country.

In his 28 years on the job, his toughest estimating gigs came with one-off gatherings here in D.C.

Most large-scale shindigs on the Mall, which is an NPS-run property, are of a political or social nature. And for these events, there’s added strength in his numbers. Street’s estimates about how many vacationing Griswolds took in Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore are used to answer staffing and budgetary questions for his agency; his numbers on D.C. events could determine a day’s place in history.

“Every organizer or sponsor says we low-balled them,” he says.

But Street says his job isn’t to make people happy. It’s to be accurate. And he believes in his methods, which involve the use of aerial photography, maps, and grids.

“We have Washington, D.C., completely gridded out, every inch of the Park Service properties,” he says, “and we know how many acres and square feet are in each area. Very simply, we get our aerial overflight pictures, we apply a [population] density level for each one of those areas, and if the proper density levels are applied in each area, we know now that it gets us pretty close. This has been worked out over time.”

In November 1991, the agency published a manual for “estimating attendance at special events and demonstrations that occur on National Park Services Areas within the National Capital Region.”

Its authors said the methodology, which relied on techniques Street had devised, needed to be transparent and “independently verifiable” because “special interest groups often challenge our crowd estimates.”

Specifically, the memo mentioned that organizers of a pro-life rally on the Mall in April 1990 accused the NPS of drastically underestimating actual attendance. The document also references an unnamed festival at the Sylvan Theater and the south side of the Washington Monument; the government estimated the crowd at 23,500, while “the sponsor’s estimate was 500,000.”

“[A]s a representative of the United States Government and its citizens, [NPS] has a duty to provide as unbiased and objective an evaluation of attendance as our budget, technology, and time permit,” the memo advised.

Street hasn’t been asked to come up with an official estimate for any D.C. event in a long while. And that 1991 manual is currently not used by his agency. Street and the Park Service, in fact, have been specifically barred by an act of Congress from divulging official crowd estimates—but only for D.C. gatherings.

“Ever since the Million Man March,” he says. “That changed things.”

Even before the Nation of Islam’s soiree here in October 1995, the Park Service knew this particular crowd estimate would be a sensitive one. The day before the Million Man March, an anonymous NPS employee told the Washington Post, “If we say [the crowd] was 250,000, we’ll be told it was a half-million. If we say it was a half-million, we’ll be told it was a million. Anything short of a million, and you can probably bet we’ll take some heat for it.”

But none of the brouhahas from pro-life rallies or anti- or pro-war rallies prepared Street or his superiors for the actual squabble.

Street, who says his agency followed the policies outlined in the manual, put the Million Man March crowd at 400,000. That was the official estimate given to the media by NPS.

The Park Service figure was challenged immediately by Louis Farrakhan, who insisted that at least a million men had indeed marched in the event he’d organized and that government racism was behind the low-balling.

But Farrakhan’s complaints lacked any formula to counter the Park Service’s number. Until, that is, a researcher named Farouk El-Baz of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing stepped forward to make Farrakhan’s case.

El-Baz, who said he’d formed his crowd-estimation method by counting sand dunes in the deserts of Egypt and Kuwait, looked at network TV footage and aerial photographs of the event and declared that the crowd on the Mall was actually 870,000, plus or minus 25 percent. After taking criticism for the huge margin of error, El-Baz came back with a new figure: 837,000, plus or minus 20 percent.

Using the maximum error, therefore, Farrakhan’s gathering could have attracted as many as 1,004,400 folks—or 4,400 more than the advertised amount.

In 2003, an NPR interviewer asked El-Baz why a researcher would release an estimate with such a high margin of error. El-Baz responded that it was due to the “obliquity” of the photographs that he was provided.

More recently, other academics have backed up Street’s number.

In July 2004, researchers Clark McPhail and John D. McCarthy (of the University of Illinois and Penn State University, respectively) published a paper on the Million Man March controversy in Caliber, an academic journal published by the University of California Press. The piece was entitled “Who Counts and How.”

“The Million Man March of 1995 was neither a march nor did it attract a million men,” opens the piece.

McPhail and McCarthy then spend a few thousand words and oodles of statistics tearing apart any estimate approaching the size of El-Baz’s. The researchers concluded that the Mall, which takes up 2,620,515 square feet, could fit only 1,048,206 people, and that’s if they took up every inch of ground space and each person is allotted just 2.5 square feet, or about the size of the front page of USA Today.

That little space would mean that every attendee would have had to stand “more or less perfectly still.”

The Park Service never retracted its 400,000 figure. Street stands by his work.

“It’s sad that this became such a big issue,” Street says, “but this was going to happen once they called it the Million Man March. If it had another title, it wouldn’t have obscured the success of the event, which was one of the biggest gatherings in D.C. history. I mean, 400,000 is a whole lot of people. But it just got nasty.”

El-Baz’s re-estimation, and Farrakhan’s continued harping, had its impact on Street’s job.

“After the [Million Man March],” NPS spokesperson Dave Barna says, “the House appropriations committee said that ‘the committee has provided no funding’ for crowd estimations in gatherings in Washington, D.C. Basically we aren’t allowed to spend taxpayer dollars, that means even our salary, on crowd counts, so we’re out of it in D.C.”

The ban still stands. So neither Street nor anybody else at the Park Service will be looking at aerial photos or using grids or maps on Inauguration Day.

“No matter what, I hope we’ll be taking pictures,” Street says. “If anybody ever sees them or not, I don’t know. But there’s no way to do it after the fact. So if we don’t take pictures, and then the new president wants to know how many people showed up to his inauguration, and we don’t have any pictures to work with, we got a problem.”

There’s a chance Street might get his wish.

“We’re struggling with this,” Barna says. “I don’t think we’re going to be laying down a grid this time. But if somebody [in Congress] says, ‘Hey, give us a number,’ we’ll do it. And then we’ll get hammered all over again.”