Politics & Government

S. Carolina celebrants to descend on Washington

WASHINGTON — South Carolinians who gave Barack Obama a decisive primary victory in the Palmetto State are joining a national migration to Washington to see the first black president sworn into office.

Bus-tour operators were flooded with calls after Obama's Nov. 4 election triumph. Jubilant Obama backers called friends and relatives in Washington or tried their luck with hotels that filled up in days.

"This is special and historic for black people," said Hattie Fruster, president of the Lower Richland branch of the NAACP, which is organizing a bus trip for Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration. "I'm 78 years old. I've been involved in the civil rights struggle. I never thought I'd live to see this."

In Washington, South Carolina congressional offices, the only authorized distributors of inauguration tickets, have been overwhelmed by the demand.

A record 45,000 constituents requested tickets before New Year's Day, three times more than for any previous inauguration in memory, with fewer than 1,900 available.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and the state's senior senator, received 15,000 requests for just over 300 actual tickets.

"Even after posting a notice on our Web site that we did not have any tickets, we continued to receive numerous requests," Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman, said Friday.

House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn, a Columbia, S.C., Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress, got more than 10,000 requests for 198 available tickets.

About 240,000 people with the coveted tickets will sit in a roped-off area outside the U.S. Capitol's West Front to watch Obama be sworn in at noon as the 44th president.

Beyond them, as many as 2 million people will stretch along the National Mall for almost a mile to the Lincoln Monument - from whose portico Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his epochal "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

On Inauguration Day, streets in central Washington will be closed to vehicular traffic for security, and tour buses will have to park long distances from the Mall.

Partly for security but also due to space limits, strollers and backpacks are on a long list of prohibited items.

Law-enforcement agencies and inauguration planners are warning people to prepare to walk and stand for as long as six hours in likely cold winter weather for the swearing-in ceremony and inauguration parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Rep. John Spratt has set aside inauguration tickets for two special constituents. Now elderly and partially disabled, the women joined the 1963 March on Washington where King spoke.

"For them, this is coming back full circle," said Tish Mills, a Spratt aide.

Many tickets went to those who requested them first, but lawmakers made exceptions.

"We have looked for compelling cases, such as one constituent who is in a wheelchair and suffering from a terminal illness," said Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat and House Budget Committee chairman.

"I stood next to the chief-of-police at an Obama rally in Rock Hill, and he told me then that he wanted to come to the inauguration," Spratt said. "I made sure the chief and his wife were included."

Obama's defeat of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, now his choice as secretary of state, in South Carolina's Jan. 26 Democratic primary helped him secure the party's presidential nomination.

But many South Carolinians who want to see Obama take the oath of office won't be able to make the trip.There's no place for them to stay in - or within 100 miles of - the nation's capital.

"When Obama was first elected, we got bombarded with calls," said Glenda Tate, a tour consultant with Capitol Bus Lines of West Columbia, S.C. "We got 25 calls a day. People reserved buses, but then they canceled when they couldn't find rooms."

Lillie Bates, vice president of the NAACP's Lower Richland branch, reserved a block of hotel rooms in the Virginia capital of Richmond - more than 100 miles from Washington.

The group, which sent no buses to Washington for the inaugurations of Bill Clinton or George Bush, initially limited space to NAACP members, Fruster said. Now, a few remaining spots are open to the public for $210 apiece, including round -trip bus fare and a room at a hotel in Richmond.

"We've had calls from Atlanta and Charlotte from people wanting to go," Fruster said. "We've been getting calls day and night."

Many Palmetto State celebrants are laying out big money for what, for some, could turn into three or even four days of festivities.

About 2,500 people bought $125 tickets to attend the South Carolina State Society's black-tie Inaugural Ball on Jan. 19, the night before the swearing-in.

That number dwarfs the previous record of 1,800 who attended the 2005 ball following President Bush's re-election.

Hosted by the state's two senators and six House representatives, this year's ball will be at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, a spectacular venue with fighter jets, commercial airliners, helicopters and spacecraft hanging from towering vaulted ceilings.

Laurin Groover, a Charleston Law School student and former legislative director, is organizing the ball as head of the society's finance committee.

The group sold ball tickets online for the first time, Groover said.

"So many people used that, we were close to selling out of tickets before we had an agreement on the invitation design," Groover said. "I can honestly say the response was unprecedented."

Bill Skipper, a Florence, S.C., native, contributed $5,000 to the South Carolina State Society Ball as CEO of American Business Development Group, an Arlington, Virg.,-based firm.

Skipper said he and his wife have invited friends and relatives from South Carolina and beyond to stay with them during the inauguration festivities.

"It's a way to celebrate democracy," Skipper said. "It's a way for us to see old friends and make new acquaintances and have a good time while we're at it."

On the evening of Jan. 20, after the swearing-in, Barack and Michelle Obama will attend - and, if they follow tradition, dance at - 10 official inaugural balls.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee hadn't released details about the balls as of Friday, but South Carolina and other Southern states could gather at the District of Columbia Armory, the site of the 2005 ball.

In the Palmetto State, Hattie Fruster said she's nabbed one of the seats on the NAACP bus coming to Washington from South Carolina.

"I want to thank God for letting me live to see this," Fruster said. "Back in the 1950s, I would never have thought a black man could be elected president. Black people everywhere should be enthused about this. This is a wonderful time."