Obama honors King, prods nation to service

Published 12:29 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

At the dawn of a new era in race and politics, President-elect Barack Obama practiced the age-old virtue of service on Monday and summoned memories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Everyone’s got to be involved,” said the man in line to become the first black chief executive.

“Tomorrow we will come together as one people on the same Mall where Dr. King’s dream echoes still,” said Obama, who takes the oath of office at noon Tuesday at a time of economic crisis at home and two wars overseas.

The festive crowds already jamming the capital city for the national holiday honoring King were just a preview of the vast throng expected for Inauguration Day events. “I didn’t think I would see a black president in my generation. I just had to be here,” said Donald Butler, 20, a University of Washington student.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Uniformed military personnel were stationed at street corners, advance guard of the massive security presence planned for the oath-taking, inaugural speech, parade and other festivities. There were no disturbances reported.

On the specially built inaugural stands outside the Capitol, musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman rehearsed for their role in the historic ceremonies.

President Bush was in the White House for his final full day as president after two terms marked by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the economic collapse of 2008. He placed calls to world leaders, including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and commuted the prison sentences of two former Border Patrol Guards.

On Tuesday morning, he and first lady Laura Bush will greet Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the storied mansion’s front portico and see them in for a brief visit. By the time Obama returns at mid-afternoon, he will be the nation’s 44th president, Bush will be en route to a Texas retirement, and the moving vans will have departed with one family’s belongings and arrived with the other’s.

Obama issued a statement declaring, “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.”

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the president-elect visited 14 veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then his motorcade headed for the Sasha Bruce House, a facility for homeless teens, where he grabbed a paint roller and helped volunteers who were fixing up rooms.

“We can’t allow any idle hands,” he said. “Everybody’s got to be involved.”

Later, Obama joined his wife at a high school where they greeted 300 volunteers who were writing letters to U.S. troops and doing other volunteer work.

The president-elect thanked them and said, “If we’re waiting for somebody else to do something, it never gets done. We’re going to have to take responsibility, all of us. This is not just a one-day affair.”

Referring to his imminent new job, he said, “I am making a commitment to you as your next president that we are going to make government work.”

Obama packed his evening schedule full with three private dinners held in honor of Vice President-elect Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the man he defeated last November to win the White House.

Obama’s public events recalled his time as a community service organizer in Chicago, in the years before he entered politics. An Illinois state senator a mere four years ago, he won election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and announced his candidacy for the White House in early 2007.

A party atmosphere took hold on the National Mall. As light snow fell intermittently, small crowds gathered around large-screen televisions showing reruns of Sunday afternoon’s concert featuring a star-studded cast. Several blocks from where Obama will take the oath of office, the Boy’s Choir of Kenya gave an impromptu performance for anyone who happened to be nearby.

Two wreaths materialized at the site of a future memorial to King on the Mall in an area on the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial. “The cadence and syntax of Obama, it comes directly from Dr. King,” said Kirk Moses, a retired high school teacher as others in his group took pictures of the bronze plaque marking the spot for the future memorial.

Obama also said he spoke with the pilot who safely landed a disabled airliner in the Hudson River, US Airways Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger.

“He said, ’Me and my crew, we were just doing our job.’ And it made me think, if everybody did their job — whatever that job was — as well as that pilot did his job, we’d be in pretty good shape,” Obama said. Sullenberger, his crew and family were invited by Obama to attend Tuesday’s inauguration.

Michelle Obama and Biden’s wife, Jill, visited RFK Stadium where people were at work wrapping care packages and writing letters to troops overseas.

Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had been designated to stay away from Tuesday’s inaugural festivities “in order to ensure continuity of government.” By custom, one government official stays away when others in the line of presidential succession attend public events. Gates has been tapped to remain in his post by Obama.