Americans flock to D.C. to be part of Obama's inauguration

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Judi Wortham, of Nashville, Tenn., saw the fleece hat and had to have it, shiny and bedazzled as it was, decorated in a sparkly copy of Shepard Fairey's iconic painting of president-elect Barack Obama.

"Anything that goes like this, 'bling, bling,'" she said, making blinking motions with her hands before she sat down to lunch at Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House. "Anything that's shiny. So of course I love the new president."

Showing off its red-white-and-blue bedecked best, Washington on Saturday absorbed thousands of people like Wortham who were determined — no, insistent — on experiencing history and having the times of their lives in the below-freezing days leading up to Tuesday's inauguration.

They're ready for the crowds and the cold, said Shelene Fox of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Bring it on.

"Don't expect everything to go right, just embrace the moment and have fun," said Fox, who along with her husband, was searching for a Metro subway card at Reagan National Airport, just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital.

Entering the city on planes, trains, buses and automobiles, people crowded into a capital so swelled with visitors that the cell phone waiting lot at National Airport had a line of cars waiting for a space.

In downtown Washington, visitors saw patriotic bunting hanging everywhere, almost as ubiquitous as the portable toilets lined up from the Capitol grounds to the White House in preparation for crowds expected to be as many as 2 million.

With temperatures expected to creep barely above 30 degrees on a day of outdoor inaugural events, visitors and residents alike scrambled to outdoor stores and Army-Navy supply shops for non-cotton thermal underwear, wool socks, hand and toe warmers, hats and gloves. They may have been heeding the advice of the Obama inaugural team, which at 3:44 p.m. Saturday sent out a welcome-to-the-city text message to cell phone users, advising: "If you are coming to DC dress warmly!"

At Hudson Trail Outfitters in Washington's Tenleytown neighborhood, shoppers looking for long underwear could find only thermal tops, not bottoms. Alex Deac, the store's manager, said it's been so busy that he's had to bring in extra inventory.

"We've sold out three or four times — Patagonia, Under Armour, everything," Deac said. "It's been like this for three or four days. We had to bring stock in from other stores. This is even better than Christmas."

Washington's Union Station was filled Saturday with visitors arriving with hopes of catching a glimpse of Obama — who'd arrived here by train — taking the oath of office, or of at least taking in the celebratory atmosphere from afar.

Many wore pins and clothing printed with Obama's face and name as they walked the 100-year-old Beaux Arts station's corridors. Some carried sleeping bags, with guitars slung on their backs. In the station's main lobby, workers were building a stage for a Latino inaugural gala planned for Sunday.

Brian Rizzo, 16, of Newtown, Pa., had arrived with a group of high school students taking part in a weekend-long young leaders conference, which was to culminate with their attendance at the presidential swearing-in ceremony.

Rizzo said his grandfather had seen John F. Kennedy's swearing-in in person nearly five decades ago and had felt the same excitement while attending an Obama campaign rally last year.

"Seeing Barack Obama here will be something we'll never forget," Rizzo said. "In our classroom, there's a picture of all the presidents, and they're all old, white guys. In the future, kids in our shoes will see a different picture on the wall."

That sense of history also compelled G.W. and Cynthia Mingo to make a 16-hour, all-night drive from Gainesville, Fla. They picked up their daughter, Anne Marie Mingo, in Atlanta, and stopped at Union Station on Saturday morning to grab maps and tourist guides.

G.W. Mingo, 69, remembered growing up in the segregated South, where he didn't study or work alongside whites until he joined the military as a young adult. His wife, Cynthia Mingo, had taken part in a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Tallahassee, Fla., to protest segregation policies that required blacks to eat at a counter in the back of the restaurant.

At Union Station, the couple and their daughter posed for photos alongside a statue of A. Philip Randolph, an African-American civil rights leader and the founder of a landmark train porters union that represented many African-American workers.

G.W. Mingo remembered making the drive north decades ago, at a time he couldn't stop at many of the gas stations, motels or restaurants along the way because of his skin color.

"We drove up all night this time because we wanted to, not because we had to," Mingo said.

His daughter said that Obama had inspired her to take part in her first political campaign, and she had knocked on doors around her home during the campaign. She watched election night results come in at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had once been pastor.

"We'll be with the masses and everyone else here," Cynthia Mingo said. "To not be here in this atmosphere at this historic moment is unthinkable."

Elsewhere in the capital, a national mayors conference drew hundreds of city leaders. Many of them, even those who hadn't voted for Obama, planned to party.

Michael Sullivan, the mayor of Lawrence, Mass., about 25 miles north of Boston, had worked on the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, but said he would nonetheless be celebrating Obama's presidency.

"Now's a time for everyone to come together," Sullivan said as he stepped out of the bitter cold. "Now's a time for everyone to come together."

(William Douglas contributed to this article.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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