It's Obamarama time!

Sat, Jan 17, 2009, 00:00

The excitement is building ahead of Barack Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday, which promises to be one of the biggest parties the US will ever throw

TOMORROW morning, after Sunday service, almost a hundred members of the congregation of Union Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, will pile into two church buses and set off on a 14-hour drive to Washington. The predominantly African-American church is one of hundreds from all over the United States that will make what deacon William Manning predicts will be an unforgettable, emotionally charged journey to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as president next Tuesday.

“This is just such a joyous, momentous occasion that people are flocking to Washington from everywhere, and Huntsville is no different,” Manning says.

“For the kids from our Christian Academy, we’re trying to expose them to the historical significance of someone like them being inaugurated as president of the United States.

But the real joy will be for the people who are, say, between 45 and 65 and who have known the struggles of African-Americans in the United States. They’re just bursting at the seams with pride and gladness because some of them thought they’d never see this in their lifetimes.”

The Huntsville church group will stay at a hotel in Maryland, visiting the main sights of Washington on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s inauguration, before setting off on the long journey home on Tuesday night. Most of downtown Washington will be closed to traffic on Tuesday, so the visitors from Alabama can expect to spend long hours walking around in the cold, but Manning is confident nobody will be complaining.

“We just hope that it’s going to be a felicitation of their joy in the Lord,” he says. “That they’re going to come back having seen something that is very, very significant that has occurred in their lifetime. It’s almost like a mountain-top experience and we hope it’s going to bring them closer to the Lord.”

With crowds expected to easily surpass the record 1.2 million that watched Lyndon B Johnson’s inauguration in 1964, next week’s event is being planned on a scale that Washington has never seen before. More than 20,000 police officers, National Guard troops and plain-clothes officers from more than 50 agencies will patrol the city on the ground, on the waterways and from the air.

More than 100 teams of specialists in hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction and hostage rescue will be on hand, using GPS devices and a dedicated mobile phone network. Local police, more concerned about crowd control than about a terrorist threat, are taking advice from an environmental engineering expert who has studied deadly stampedes at the annual Muslim pilgrimage at Mecca.

THE CELEBRATIONS START today, when Obama and vice-president-elect Joe Biden arrive in Washington by train, boarding in Philadelphia and stopping along the way in Wilmington, Delaware, and Baltimore, Maryland. Because Monday is Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday, the festivities will stretch out over four days and the District of Columbia has relaxed its licensing laws to allow bars to serve alcohol until 4am every night between now and Wednesday morning.

After an early panic about accommodation, with reports that every hotel within a 160km radius was booked out, it seems now that anyone who wants to come to Washington for the inauguration will find a place to stay. Late this week there were 800 hotel rooms still available within the District of Columbia and a further 15,000 in Maryland and Virginia.

Greedy Washingtonians hoping to make a killing by renting out their homes have been disappointed to discover that few visitors are willing to pay $3,000 (about €2,260) a week for a room in the city. Many of those advertising private accommodation have slashed their prices dramatically and still more have simply given up trying to profit from the inauguration, inviting friends and family to stay instead.

Crowds for the inauguration are predicted to be anything from 1½ to three million, although only 240,000 have a ticket to watch the swearing-in, with a further 340,000 having places along Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the traditional parade.

Everyone else will view the ceremony on 20 giant screens dotted across the National Mall between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial, with just 5,000 portable toilets available.

City officials have urged spectators to wrap up well because temperatures are expected to remain close to freezing all day on Tuesday and those hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president may have to stand around in the cold for up to seven hours.

If tickets to the inauguration are hard to come by, access to the more than 100 official inaugural balls is even more restricted, although there are more events planned this year than ever before.

The American Ireland Fund is hosting a daytime event for supporters at a building on Pennsylvania Avenue, with excellent views of the parade. On Tuesday night, the leading lights of Irish-American society will don black tie and ball gowns at the Phoenix Park Hotel near Union Station for the first ever Irish inaugural ball.

Irish Ambassador to the US Michael Collins and former taoiseach and EU ambassador John Bruton are among the guests of honour at the event, which is hosted by Irish-American Democrats, a political action committee that raises money for Democratic candidates who take an interest in Irish causes.

Maryland governor Martin O’Malley will be there, along with Congressional Friends of Ireland chairman Richard Neal and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who is hoping to become the next governor of Virginia.

Incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Connecticut senator Chris Dodd have been invited and Irish band the Corrigans will perform their ode to the new president There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama.

Cooley Distilleries have produced commemorative miniatures of whiskey, which will be distributed to guests.

IRISH-AMERICAN DEMOCRATS president Stella O’Leary says the level of international interest in Obama’s inauguration is overwhelming, adding that the event was fully subscribed almost as soon as it was announced. “I don’t think there’s any comparison to anything I’ve ever seen or experienced. It’s just so huge and so magnified from anything I’ve ever seen from many inaugurations in Washington, just in its size and the number of people coming from out of town, from overseas and the amount of interest and excitement. The whole ambience is way different from anything that’s preceded it,” she says.

“I think it’s because it’s so exciting that it’s an African-American and everybody is so relieved that Bush is going and because the country is in such terrible shape. People are hoping that something will happen that will change it. I think the biggest part of the outpouring is the fact that he’s African-American and that he’s so charismatic and that he’s drawing people in a kind of superstar way.”

The Irish event is the biggest of the ethnic balls, but other groups, including Arab-Americans, Armenian-Americans and Hungarian-Americans are also planning celebrations for the first time. Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and numerous Christian denominations will stage their own events, and on Monday a group of pagans will gather at the Jefferson Memorial for a ritual of unity and blessing.

The rituals, which will include a witches’ broom dance and a drum circle, are meant to cleanse Washington of all the ills of the Bush years and to protect Obama before his swearing-in. “We’re worried about his safety,” Caroline Kenner, a witch doctor and pagan shamanic healer told Washington City Paper.

“We believe in magic and we believe that the magical protection that we are going to convey to the Obama and Biden families will have an actual effect on this world . . . We know it works.”

FREEMASONS ARE AMONG the other groups to hold their first inaugural celebration, although Masonic officials in Washington acknowledge that, unlike many previous US presidents, neither Obama nor Biden are members of the order.

Inauguration veterans revel in telling horror stories about the bigger, traditional inauguration balls, where guests can pay thousands of dollars to eat nothing more than a few cheese cubes and queue for 45 minutes for a cash bar.

Experienced ball-goers make sure to eat before they leave home, and many keep their coats with them throughout the evening to avoid a repeat of the notorious coat-check riots during Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inauguration, when many women left in fur coats not their own.

The new president will visit up to a dozen balls on the night of his inauguration, with the last event ending at around 2.30am.

Obama has sought to make his inauguration more accessible to the public, hosting a Neighbourhood Ball at Washington’s Convention Centre, with moderately priced tickets available online. The event, which will be broadcast live, will feature music by Beyoncé, Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Faith Hill, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Shakira and Stevie Wonder.

On Monday, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden will host a kids’ concert featuring the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Bow Wow.

The biggest musical event is on Sunday, when Bono will join Bruce Springsteen, Denzel Washington, Stevie Wonder, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, John Mellencamp and others for a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Each artist will perform just one song, although some will be grouped in duets and trios, and they will perform music that reflects the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, rather than their own hits.

OBAMA HAS HINTED that his inauguration address, which he will deliver as soon as he is sworn in on the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday, will be sombre in tone, reflecting the enormous challenges facing the US. The incoming president has called on all Americans to make Monday a “day of service”, encouraging citizens to engage in voluntary work in their communities.

In the poor, crime-plagued Washington district of Anacostia more than 300 volunteers will spend the day painting classrooms and hallways, creating murals and renovating the school library.

Obama’s transition team has created a website directing volunteers to numerous similar projects throughout the country.

The president-elect’s focus on service and sacrifice may be politically astute in view of the disastrous state of the US economy and the enormous expectations invested in him.

O’Leary believes that, after the euphoria of the inauguration fades away, disappointment is almost inevitable. “Obviously, people are looking for a panacea but I don’t think the panacea is possible because the figures just don’t add up, and it’s going to be difficult for him to fulfil all the promises,” she says.

“I think people are going to have to learn to live with some form of disappointment but I think if he’s inspiring enough in the way that Roosevelt was, and people understand what he’s trying to do, I hope they will give him good marks for that.”

  • For up-to-date coverage of next week’s presidential inauguration, go to irishtimes.com/ uselections2008

The Party At Home

The party in Dublin begins early on inauguration day, with a special reception for about 150 kicking off at 4pm at the American embassy, to ensure that all are present to watch the swearing-in ceremony live at 5pm (noon in Washington). Among the invitees are members of Government, academics, business people and representatives of cultural organisations – “everyone we have a lot of contact with that we wanted to share the event with”.


Later that evening, Democrats Abroad Ireland, the Irish arm of the Democratic Party for Americans living here, will host an inaugural ball at Dublin’s Davenport Hotel from 9pm. “As an organisation, we know that Democrats Abroad made significant differences in elections across the country. Our vote mattered and our efforts paid off. We plan to celebrate president Obama’s inauguration here in Ireland and join in renewing America’s promise,” says Kate Fitzgerald, chairwoman of Democrats Abroad Ireland.


This will involve live music, dancing and highlights of the inaugural address for some 350 revellers. Those keen to attend can try their luck at the door, though only passport-holding American citizens are allowed purchase tickets, and potential party-goers are advised to come early to avoid disappointment.


Down in the Obama heartland of Moneygall, Co Offaly, Ollie Hayes’s bar is the place to be, with the party kicking off at 8.30pm. Live music, set dancing, food and drink will be on offer for the evening as the locals celebrate their presidential connection.

– Fiona Mc Cann