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Inauguration Day journey

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By The Staff

Editor’s Note: Tell City resident Larry K. Kleeman attended the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president. The News invited him to share his experience.

My first memory of a presidential election is of “I Like Ike” buttons during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second campaign. I was in elementary school at the time and really don’t remember much about it except the “I Like Ike” slogan. My real interest happened when I was in high school and Sen. John F. Kennedy ran against Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960. I also remember when Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy visited Tell City in 1963 as President Kennedy was gearing up to seek re-election, an effort that tragically ended with his death in November of 1963.

And then in March of 1968, when I was a junior at Indiana State University, Sen. Robert Kennedy flew to Indianapolis to file his papers to run in the Indiana presidential primary.

A group of us drove from Terre Haute to see Kennedy when he landed at the Indianapolis airport. Then we followed his caravan downtown and watched as he went up the State Capitol steps to file his papers. He later made a few brief remarks and then left for the airport. Tragically in June of 1968, he was assassinated ending his quest for the presidency.

These events helped to create in me an interest in politics and although I have never run for a political office, I have been involved ever since. I actively vote, read books and articles, follow pending legislation and actively contact my elected representatives to express my views. That has been the extent of my involvement until this year. This year it jumped up several notches as Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency.

My interest in Obama actually began during his speech to the 2004 National Democrat Convention, where he proclaimed “We are not a red state, nor a blue state, but we are the United States of America.” I read both of his books - “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.”

When he had a town-hall style meeting at Ball State University in Muncie in March of 2008 I was able to get a ticket. I stood in line for several hours in the wee hours of the morning and had the opportunity to attend this event.

Because of his positions on the war in Iraq (which I opposed from the beginning), health care, the environment and energy and his vision of hope, I followed his campaign with much interest. After the Muncie event I became convinced he is a different “politician” and is the right person, at the right time, to lead the United States.

In 1994 I had the opportunity to participate in The Citizen Ambassador Program with People to People International on a trip to Russia. PTPI was founded by Eisenhower a little over 50 years ago in an effort to promote peace and understanding, one person at a time, by allowing ordinary people to become “citizen ambassadors” and travel throughout the world in an attempt to understand different cultures. Since the Russia trip I have also had the opportunity to travel with People to People to China, Egypt and Cuba.

Mary Jean Eisenhower, granddaughter of Eisenhower, is the chief executive officer of PTPI and in June of 2008 invited me as an “alumni” of previous PTPI trips, to participate in a Citizen Ambassador Delegation to Washington, D.C. for the 2009 United States Presidential Inauguration.

The deadline for registering was in July and no refund would be available after the election, so I had to register prior to knowing the outcome of the election. This was a “nonpartisan” event and I would participate regardless of who won the election. I will admit that at the time I registered I knew the trip would be more enjoyable for me if Obama won the election. But regardless of who won we considered it a learning opportunity and my wife, Sharon, and I signed up.

We were guaranteed four nights of lodging in Alexandria, Va., and tickets to the inauguration. In addition other pre-inaugural activities were scheduled. About one week before the event we were informed that we wouldn’t get tickets for the inauguration. We were devastated, but we decided to push on and we’re certainly glad we did.

What follows is a summary of our Washington activities: On Jan. 17 my wife and I joined the other 231 delegates at the hotel for an opening dinner and orientation with our final itinerary. On Jan. 18, we attended a presentation by Mary Jean Eisenhower about her reflections of her grandfather’s inauguration.

Then we listened to a presentation from Ken Walsh, U.S. News and World Reports’ chief White House correspondent about his observations of Obama and we received a copy of Walsh’s book on presidential homes titled, “From Mount Vernon to Crawford.”

Some of Walsh’s observations about Obama included the Washington area looking forward to Obama and his family living in Washington and participating in community events. Obama has stated he plans to take his wife, Michelle, out on a weekly date and he wants to take his children, Malia and Sasha, to the national zoo.

We drove by the hot dog restaurant where Obama recently had a chili hot dog and it was packed with tourists who just wanted to visit and have a hot dog where the president ate. Evidently President George W. Bush did not participate in Washington activities and mainly left town every weekend for either Camp David or Texas. Walsh also observed that Obama’s actions were echoes of Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy and in fact Obama rode the same train route into Washington that Lincoln rode from Philadelphia, Penn., to Wilmington, Delaware to Baltimore, Md., to D.C.

Walsh added that Obama had created a database of some 13 million people during his campaign for the presidency and he intended to use this database to stay in touch with the general population.

After lunch we did some sightseeing including the new Newseum. While in the Newseum we were able to watch on a huge television screen the “We Are One” concert in progress at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall where some two dozen entertainers performed for an estimated half million people and where Obama, his family and Vice President Joe Biden and his family were present for the two-hour concert. Obama made some brief remarks, reflecting in part that the greatness of the United States and the hope for a better America is in its people.

The great marble statues and stone memorials such as the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial that surround the National Mall are important memories, however what is important today are the hopes and aspirations of the thousands of people who filled the National Mall grounds between the monuments.

On Jan. 19, the day began early with more sightseeing, including Arlington National Cemetery, Vietnam and Korean War memorials, the Marine Iwo Jima Memorial, and then to Mount Vernon, the home place of George Washington, our nation’s first president.

After Mount Vernon we had dinner with Mary Jean Eisenhower and Ambassador Hamid Al-Bayati, permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations. Then the evening concluded with a performance of the comedy “Shear Madness” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A very long day and late night before the main event.

Inauguration Day

We were up at 4 a.m. and on the bus at 5:30 a.m. for the five mile trip to the National Mall. Due to security, all main roads into Washington were closed to private vehicles.

The only way to get to the National Mall was by walking, the Metro or a ticketed bus. The good news was People to People had arranged for five chartered buses for our delegation to travel on. The bad news was that due to the extremely large number of people participating it took our bus 90 minutes to travel the five miles to drop us off at the National Mall, on 12th Street near the Washington Monument.

We followed the crowd as far as we could, until we literally ran into a wall of people, standing shoulder to shoulder, and could move no farther. We ended up near the third large television screen around Seventh Street or about seven or eight blocks from the Capitol steps where the ceremony was taking place. As I understand it the ticketed area started around Fourth Street, so we were close enough to see the Capitol Building and stage but not close enough to distinguish who was on the stage. We did, however have a great view of the large screens and saw the event clearly and even got some great pictures off the jumbo screen. It was cold and it was crowded.

We stood shoulder to shoulder with what was reported later to be 1.8 million people, far surpassing the 1.2 million previous record of President Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural in 1965.

Around 9 a.m. the concert from Sunday was rebroadcast with the crowd singing along and waving the approximately 300,000 small American Flags that were distributed by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Around 10 a.m., some of the formal inaugural music began and was performed by the United States Marine Band, the San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. From 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. introductions and seating of all the dignitaries, including the House of Representatives and Senate, the US Supreme Court, the Cabinet, former vice presidents and presidents.

At 11:30 Sen. Diane Fienstein called the 56th U.S. Presidential Inauguration to order. Then Dr. Rick Warren gave the invocation and Aretha Franklin sang.

Joe Biden was sworn in by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens. At noon, Obama took the oath of office as this nation’s 44th president, using Lincoln’s inaugural Bible, administered by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Obama then gave an inaugural speech that lasted about 17 minutes.

Frankly I don’t remember much of Obama’s inaugural speech except for several instances where he made statements of policy that were in direct opposition to policies of Bush, the outgoing president. I didn’t make good mental notes of the speech as I was caught up in the emotions of the day.

Most of my time and attention was centered on observing the other people and sharing their emotions. Despite the massive crowd in very confining spaces and very cold weather, people were jubilant and celebrating. Not like a New Year’s Eve or football tailgating partying crowd but a diverse group of all ages, races, ethnic, religious backgrounds from throughout the United States had gathered to celebrate this moment in our history. They also were eager for a change in direction, cheering during the introductions and inaugural speech, expressing hope and optimism for a better tomorrow.

During the inauguration, and frankly throughout our time in the Washington area at every event and site where we went people were happy and pleasant to be around and in great anticipation for the inauguration and Obama.

It was not a large, rude, anti-social urban crowd one might expect. People were patient and respectful and in fact no arrests were made during the inauguration day. That fact speaks for itself as 1.8 million people gathered on a very cold day in January, huddled together to celebrate this historic event. I remember watching the election returns being reported on television the night of Nov. 4 and when Obama was declared president, tears of joy formed in my eyes.

I got a similar feeling when Obama took his oath of office and officially became the 44th president of the United States. During the transition period from the election to January there was always an uncertain feeling I had - was it real? The historic reality of it all happened Jan. 20, 2009, and I was a witness to history. It is evident people, including me, wanted a change in direction.

History will be the judge whether the change we got is what we needed, however it is great to live in a country that can have a peaceful transition of leadership and a significant change in policies without bloodshed or a militant revolution. I suppose this is what our founding fathers, including George Washington, had in mind.