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Not up close but very personal at inauguration

Crowds watching from the Lincoln Memorial, two miles from where Barack Obama takes his oath, bask in the moment.

January 21, 2009|Robin Abcarian and Faye Fiore

WASHINGTON — They gathered at the feet of Abraham Lincoln on Tuesday morning, the people who didn't feel the need to be up close.

The Lincoln Memorial, two miles west of where the new president took his oath, was as far as you could get from the swearing-in and still feel part of things.

For many, the location was more meaningful than almost anywhere else: It was Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was here 45 years ago that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech about the dream for racial equality that President Obama's inauguration has brought to life.

"I just thought, you know, this is as close to a secular church as you can get," said Morgan Schoerner, 40, an editor from South Pasadena who was here with wife, Kim, and 10-year-old son, Max, and a few hundred others. As he spoke, he huddled with Max in the doorway of the visitor center below Lincoln's imposing statue, finding some relief from the frigid air outside.

Half a dozen teenagers slept curled on the floor nearby. In the warmth, Kate Okoye of Nigeria cuddled 10-month-old grandson Benson as she watched the visitor center's video about civil rights.

"We are so happy that Obama is president today," Okoye said. "The first African president."

Just below the memorial's steps, Andre Sims posed for a photo with a friend. "It's very important for me to be here," said Sims, 38, a program developer for the African American Men Project in Minneapolis.

"With the Emancipation Proclamation and Obama being sworn in on the Bible Lincoln used, it's just huge. It's huge for African American boys to see an African American man sworn in. It means anything is possible," Sims said.

Jimmy McGee of Atlanta also chose the Lincoln Memorial for its historical resonance.

"We are 10 feet from where Martin Luther King gave his speech, and we are at the feet of Lincoln," said McGee, an African American father of three boys -- 15, 11 and 7. "It's so surreal. The thing for my kids is, a black president has become normative in their minds. This tremendous turn of history means the weight of it is not on their shoulders anymore."

All sorts of emotional weight seemed to be lifting Tuesday. Environmental consultant Nandita Jain, born in India and raised in England, did something entirely uncharacteristic: On her way to the Lincoln Memorial, she purchased a small American flag to wave during the ceremony.

"I've changed nationalities twice," said Jain, who became a U.S. citizen in October. "It's a weird feeling to wave the flag of any of them. It definitely feels odd. But I am very hopeful."

Her companion, Bob Davis, echoed a sentiment that got Michelle Obama into a spot of trouble on the campaign trail last year: "I really feel proud of my country for the first time," said Davis, 54. "I was brought up in the '60s, when we were against so much. Everyone is so positive. It is so fun to be here today."

In other places around the city, people gathered spontaneously -- many intending into be on the Mall for the historic moment but unable to get there, mostly because of long security lines.

On a street six blocks from the Capitol in front of row houses, Philadelphia T-shirt vendor Roland Sharpe, 52, had thrown open all four doors of his salt-stained black sedan -- driven from Philadelphia in a snowstorm -- and turned his radio on full blast.

It was not what Ari Jean-Baptiste planned when he brought his family from Lawrence, Kan. But Jean-Baptiste, an Army pilot wounded in Iraq, had not been able to get through the security gates that created impossible choke points for spectators.

Listening to Obama's words on the sidewalk with two dozen people he didn't know, he had chills, and it wasn't from the weather. "These are the moments when we experience history," he said. "It's not where you wanted to be that matters, it's where you are."

Mike Ryan, too, was unable to get through the security lines. His daughter Heidi was to march in the inaugural parade later with her suburban Chicago high school band. He was searching for a restaurant when he heard Sharpe's radio.

"I feel like I made a contribution," Sharpe said.

Luckily for those who opted for the Lincoln Memorial, there were no security barriers and no lines. Instead, there were greeters -- irrepressibly cheerful volunteers in red beanies.

"Welcome!" cried Claudia Salomon, a health department counselor from Maryland. She stamped her feet to keep warm. "Thank you for coming! We're glad you're here!"

Many people sat bundled on the steps that are part of the memorial, some having arrived at 5 a.m. to make sure they had a good vantage point. They shivered under sleeping bags and sipped from Thermoses.

"I didn't actually go to sleep last night," said Aaron Myers, 28. "I came here to this spot because of the importance of Lincoln. And to stay away from the crowds."

Their view of the ceremony was blocked by the perfect symmetry of the Washington Monument between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. And contrary to official information, there were no Jumbotron screens nearby, only large speakers.

"We planned to come and sit here," said David Levine, 51, a stock trader from Potomac, Md. "They said there would be giant TVs, so we were a little surprised."

"Upset!" interjected his 13-year-old son, Jeremy.

"But I mean, look at this!" added Levine, gesturing toward the whole scene -- the Capitol, the crowds, the sunny skies. "This is gorgeous!"


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