Celebrations begin as Obama's inauguration nears

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 17, 2009 

BALTIMORE — President-elect Barack Obama rolled along Saturday from Philadelphia to the nation's capital on a four-stop train tour that drew thousands along the way and paid homage to the arduous inaugural journey made by his political hero Abraham Lincoln, 148 years ago.

In Baltimore, Obama and his soon-to-be vice president, Joe Biden, got off the train and rode by motorcade to the steps of the city's War Memorial, where Obama spoke flanked by thick glass security walls. A crowd of as many as 40,000, mostly African-American, turned out to see Obama, according to the official estimate from the city's deputy fire chief. They sang along to a performance of "The Star Spangled Banner," whose lyrics, by Francis Scott Key, were inspired by a battle at nearby Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.

"Let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union," Obama said.

At Wilmington, Del., his second stop, Obama addressed locals huddled at an outdoor park in freezing temperatures, saying "it falls on us to pick ourselves up, to reach for the promise of a new day and to do the hard work of perfecting our union once more." Some kids shimmied up trees for a better look.

Throughout the trip, Obama invoked themes of history, determination and common purpose, echoing the language of his campaign and perhaps previewing his inaugural address on Tuesday.

Obama was accompanied by his wife, Michelle, who turned 45 on Saturday, and their daughters Sasha and Malia; some friends and advisers; a large press contingent; and 41 Americans from 15 states selected by staff to represent the public.

These guests included people Obama had met on the campaign trail, such as Jim and Alicia Girardeau of Kansas City, Mo., both trained as social workers. Obama watched his wife's Democratic National Convention speech from the couple's home. Obama mentioned several guests' names and stories during his train-stop remarks.

In Wilmington, Biden and his wife, Jill, climbed on board. Biden, a Delaware senator since 1973 who's been known for riding Amtrak home from Capitol Hill most nights to be with his wife and children, was introduced by a train conductor who called him "Amtrak's No. 1 commuter."

Obama noted that Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution and join the union. As a slave state in 1861, however, Delaware wasn't on Lincoln's 12-day journey that began in Springfield, Ill.

Saturday's Delaware stop was a fitting bookend to that history, as Biden, an Irish Catholic raised by working-class parents, stood proudly beside the Ivy League-educated Obama, the first African-American to be elected president.

Speaking of the winter weather, and also what he described as a deep chill gripping the nation, Biden said, "Sometimes it's hard to believe we'll see the spring again, but I tell you spring is on the way with this new administration."

Said Biden: "This is more than an ordinary train ride; this is a new beginning."

The Obamas took a few minutes between Wilmington and Baltimore to meet with their guests, and Michelle Obama talked up her husband's tightly guarded inaugural address. One guest, Alicia Girardeau, said the group visit was exciting and that she, her husband and their three children also got to share an elevator with the Obamas in Philadelphia and board the train with them. Her children were in another train car, playing with the Obama girls.

Obama began the trip at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. He spoke to about 300 people indoors there. The crowd included Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Democratic and Republican senators, and invited guests.

Obama saluted the city as the birthplace of American democracy. He said "the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed" in 1776 was needed today.

"What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation but in our own lives, from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry," Obama said. Then, alluding to Lincoln's first inaugural address, he called for "an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."

Security was extremely tight, but events were marked by a sense of ease and congeniality.

The last president to arrange a train trip into Washington prior to inauguration was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Lincoln's trip, however, was Obama's inspiration; he launched his presidential bid in Springfield, Ill., has used Lincoln's words in his speeches and plans to take the oath of office with Lincoln's Bible.

Lincoln took the train out of necessity, and he had to make frequent stops. He also had more of a political imperative, to thank and solidify his support from northerners, his main constituency.

At each stop in February 1861, Lincoln felt he had to say something. Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian, said Lincoln spoke publicly at least 101 times during his train trip.

Sometimes Lincoln would say simply that he was too tired to say much, or, said James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., "give a short version of something he'd said earlier and say, 'I'm sorry I must go now'."

One of Lincoln's best remembered stops was in New York, where he insisted on meeting an 11-year-old girl who'd written that if he grew a beard, the fashion then, her brothers might vote for him. He took her advice; by the time he arrived in Washington, he'd gone from goatee to full beard, Cornelius said.

Lincoln's most famous speech of the trip was in Philadelphia, after learning of a plot to kill him. "I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it," he told the crowd, "it" meaning the nation's principle of all men being created equal.

Obama's language was nowhere near so dark.

Lincoln experts have reacted with a mix of curiosity, approval and irritation to Obama's unabashed Lincoln crush. Cornelius said that after Inauguration Day, he hopes Obama eases up.

"I don't know how much longer he can pretend he's President Lincoln incarnate," he said. "There just is no precedent for a president pretending he's someone else, draping himself in the mantle of another. If Obama grows a beard, we'd know he's gone off the deep end."

Holzer was more forgiving: "If he has to aspire to some president, why not Lincoln? The train journey is a way to connect to real people. That trip acted as a real restorative to Lincoln. For Mr. Obama, he wants to get close to the people once again because he knows it will never be quite the same again."

The 10-car train, the length of 2.5 football fields, rolled out of Philadelphia at 11:38 a.m. The Obamas rode in the bright blue Georgia 300, a restored, privately-owned 1939 Pullman he'd used for a campaign trip last year and which previously had carried former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Outside, as temperatures hovered around 20 degrees, clusters of onlookers gathered near the tracks along the route. They were bundled in coats and hats and waving flags as the train rolled by.

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