After year of planning, Sen. Feinstein gets day in spotlight

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

US NEWS INAUGURATION 236 MCT

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) speaks at the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th U.S. President at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

HARRY E. WALKER — Harry E. Walker/MCT

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein spent much of the past year consumed with details of the presidential inauguration: 240,000 tickets, 22,000 sheets of plywood for the platform, 5,000 portable toilets, 4,000 members of the news media who applied for credentials and more than 24 jumbo TV screens.

It all paid off Tuesday when the California Democrat, on one of the most visible days of her 39-year political career, served as the emcee of the inauguration. She had the honor of introducing Barack Obama as the new president and offering a toast to his wife, Michelle, and him at an exclusive luncheon at the Capitol.

"This nation is in good hands," Feinstein said, raising a glass to the Obamas. "May those hands remain stable and steady. . . . We salute you, Mr. President."

The fourth-term senator got her moment in the spotlight as a result of leading the joint congressional committee that was charged with planning the inaugural ceremony and the luncheon, aided by a $1.2 million budget. She was the first Californian and the first woman to receive the assignment.

Feinstein began her day by having coffee with President George W. Bush and Obama at the White House, then escorted the president-elect to the ceremony in a motorcade. Minutes after the ceremony concluded, Feinstein participated in a private departure ceremony for Bush, who left the Capitol grounds in a helicopter as throngs of people waved goodbye.

Before the ceremony, Feinstein had said that "the most amazing part" would be sitting near Obama during the solemn event and looking out at the Lincoln Memorial, marveling at how far the United States has progressed in race relations.

"The doors are open," she said. "And we've got a bright, young, energetic president who happens to be African-American. And the American people are rejoicing. . . . It really is history in the making."

Feinstein, 75, is no stranger to big events. She was the mayor of San Francisco in 1984, when the city hosted the Democratic National Convention. She said that was much easier to manage, however, because the crowd was inside, confined in one place.

The inauguration ceremony went off largely without a hitch Tuesday, though it ran a little behind schedule. Before the ceremony, Feinstein said that it would be important for Obama to take the oath before noon, but it didn't happen until a few minutes later.

In planning the event, Feinstein found herself trying to strike a tricky balance. She and her committee wanted to promote the inauguration, but in the end she issued warnings: People would have to stand in long lines for hours to get through security, the weather probably would be cold, there might not be enough toilets and children might be miserable and unable to see anything over adult heads. If that dampened the spirit for some, Feinstein said, it was important for people to know that they were in for a long and possibly uncomfortable day.

Feinstein said she worked with the FBI, the Secret Service, the Capitol Police and military officials to coordinate security, which included making contingency plans for a terrorist attack.

"From the very beginning, the security of this has been my number one concern," Feinstein said.

Kicking off the inauguration with a brief speech, Feinstein said Americans were gathered "to etch another line in the solid stone" of the nation's history.

"Those who doubt the supremacy of the ballot over the bullet can never diminish the power engendered by nonviolent struggles for justice and equality like the one that made this day possible," Feinstein said.

Being in charge of distributing all those tickets made Feinstein plenty popular on Capitol Hill. Each senator received roughly 300 tickets, and each member of the House of Representatives got about 200, but congressional offices were overwhelmed with requests. Feinstein said her office received 60,000 requests and had to turn away most of them.

Having a Californian in charge of them, however, came as good news to Jack Bareilles, a history teacher from Eureka, Calif., who came to the inauguration with a group of 90 students, including his daughters Claire and Jesse, and 30 adults from Humboldt County. Just a week ago, Bareilles said, Feinstein's office told him that he could get only 10 tickets.

"Lo and behold, some tickets came available," said Bareilles, who ended up sitting closer to the inaugural stand than either singer Smokey Robinson or actor Denzel Washington. "I about fell out of my chair. It's astounding."

He was eager to take his experience back to his classroom and his other students in California, saying that Obama "touches them in a way I've never seen before."

"For years I've been teaching my kids that if you work hard, you can get ahead," Bareilles said. "They believe that somehow, but now with President Obama, it's amazing; you can kind of see the light in their eye. . . . It's remarkable. The man embodies the promise of America."

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