Large crowds thronged to the capital Monday on the eve of Barack Obama‘s elevation to the presidency as America honored slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The president-elect appealed to the nation he is soon to lead to honor King’s memory through service to others.
“Tomorrow, we will come together as one people on the same mall where Dr. King’s dream echoes still,” Obama said in a statement.
A day away from becoming the nation’s 44th president, Obama made an unscheduled visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with troops injured in battle.
And with just a day left of his term, President George W. Bush made calls from the White House to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other world leaders to thank them for their work with him over the last eight years. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, was designated by the Bush administration to stay away from Tuesday’s inaugural festivities “in order to ensure continuity of government,” said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino.
One official traditionally stays away when others in the line of presidential succession are gathered together, in case of some kind of calamitous attack.
On the streets, live news broadcasts displayed on large-screen televisions attracted swarms of onlookers, and behind the scenes people made final preparations for a slew of parties, balls and other celebrations that will follow Obama’s oath-taking and the inaugural parade.
Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, fresh off a rollicking concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, planned to spend their final day before the inauguration with activities keyed to the celebration of King’s life, cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
The Obama and Biden families were part of a community renovation project in honor of King on the federal holiday established in his memory.
“Today, we celebrate the life of a preacher who, more than 45 years ago, stood on our national mall in the shadow of Lincoln and shared his dream for our nation. His was a vision that all Americans might share the freedom to make of our lives what we will; that our children might climb higher than we would,” Obama said in his statement.
Obama said King’s “was a life lived in loving service to others.”
“As we honor that legacy, it’s not a day just to pause and reflect — it’s a day to act,” Obama said. “I ask the American people to turn today’s efforts into an ongoing commitment to enriching the lives of others in their communities, their cities, and their country.”
“As we go forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let’s remember King’s lesson — that our separate dreams are really one,” Obama said.
Meanwhile, two wreaths were erected around the future site of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the tidal basin between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Groups of school children gathered around retired school teacher Kirk Moses as he talked about King’s legacy of nonviolence and the civil rights leader‘s connection to Obama.
“The cadence and syntax of Obama, it comes directly from Dr. King,” said Moses, 60, as his group took pictures of the bronze plaque that sits where the memorial will be built.
“He’s such an important figure it’s important that children understand the connections from then up until today,” Moses said.
The run-up to Obama’s inauguration, like his election itself, has been defined by enormous public enthusiasm, carefully choreographed events and a lofty spirit of unity. What awaits, as Obama often reminds the nation, is many months, if not years, of tough work.
The weekend celebrations began Saturday with Obama’s whistle-stop tour, from Philadelphia to Washington, along the path Abraham Lincoln took in 1861. Then came that roaring celebrity-filled concert where several hundred thousand people flanked the reflecting pool, hearing actors, singers and then Obama himself rally for national renewal.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee has launched a Web site, USAService.org, to help people find volunteer opportunities close to their homes.
“I am asking you to make a lasting commitment to make better the lives of your fellow Americans — a commitment that must endure beyond one day, or even one presidency,” Obama said in a YouTube appeal last week. “At this moment of great challenge and great change, I am asking you to play your part; to roll up your sleeves and join in the work of remaking this nation.”
The president-elect has a busy Monday evening, too.
He is to attend three private dinners to honor the public service of former Secretary of State Colin Powell; Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware; and Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Those dinners will be held at the Hilton Washington, National Building Museum and Union Station.
Michelle Obama, the future first lady, is hosting a children’s evening concert.
At the Capitol on Monday morning, groups of tourists wandered around the barricades to take pictures of the viewing stands and the monuments and buildings. A few even stood and watched NFL highlights that were being shown on the big-screen TV at the Capitol.
Three teachers from Baltimore said they decided to come out to the Capitol to scope out their routes in and out for the inauguration ceremony.
“Seems like they’ve planed it out pretty well,” said Gary Campbell, 29, of Baltimore as his group looked at the viewing stand from across the Capitol reflecting pool. Their school, Baltimore Freedom Academy, and the Homeland Security Academy planned to send four busloads of children to the National Mall to watch the inauguration ceremony.
Being from Baltimore the three were decked out in cold-weather gear and said they planned on wearing thermal coats, hats and scarves for the long wait on the Mall Tuesday.
“We knew to come prepared,” said Maddy Ahearn, 24.
Runner Kim Person stopped in front of the Capitol to snap a few quick pictures of the reviewing stand during a break in her marathon training. Person doesn’t have a ticket to the festivities, so she used the early morning lull to get close to the building.
“That’s why I’m looking at it today, because I won’t be able to see it tomorrow,” said Person, 43, who plans to be near the Washington Monument on Tuesday.
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