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Joy and poignancy in Washington

WASHINGTON, Jan 20 – Washington pulsed on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration with a building sense of joy, racial healing and a lightness of mood rarely witnessed during grim months of economic decline.

Thousands of people, young and old, black and white, Asian and Latino from many different states — almost all smiling — flocked to the National Mall where millions will gather Tuesday to soak up a moment of change and history.

Past racial struggles were on many minds, hours before Obama swears to "preserve, protect and defend" the US constitution and shatter America’s most enduring color barrier as the first black president.

Elizabeth Brooks, an African-American and Washington resident of 30 years, gazed at the white dome and flag-draped columns of the US Capitol, where Obama will take the oath of office, meditating on a racial circle about to close.

"I am remembering the four little girls that were bombed in the 16th Street Baptist church in Alabama," she said, remembering the 1963 attack by white racists in segregated Birmingham in which all four girls perished.

"We have two little girls going into the White House tomorrow in their place," she said, her eyes filling with tears, speaking of Obama’s young daughters Malia and Sasha.

Renita King, 46, told her six-year-old son Arthur to say a silent prayer for Obama, and said she had flown from Houston, Texas for the inauguration to mark the years of racial prejudice endured by her 73-year-old mother.

"She never thought she would see this. I am here for all the floors she has cleaned and waxed," she said.

"I am here for her, and every time that she was called a nigger — that is how I see this, as an American."

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Across downtown Washington, crowds celebrated the arrival of the historic moment. In Dupont Circle, throngs of smiling women lined up outside the Delta Sigma Theta sorority to snap a picture with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Obama.

And the lunchtime line at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the famed Washington eating establishment where Obama ate earlier this month, stretched all the way down the block.

Virginia businessman Earl Stafford spent 1.6 million dollars to invite 300 disadvantaged people to join the inauguration celebrations, booking rooms in the capital’s Marriott Hotel, providing dresses, tuxedos and buffets, as well as invitations to inaugural balls and ringside seats to the festivities.

Along Pennsylvania Avenue, where Obama will ride with President George W. Bush before the inauguration, there stood rows of bleacher seats and camera crews braved a whipping cold wind to set up their equipment.

Long rows of green "porta-potty" temporary toilets also were prepared to welcome the vast crowds.

Iron fences and iron-clad gates stood ready to swing shut after the Secret Service launched unprecedented security operations and street closures on the eve of inauguration day.

Obama’s voice pounded out of a portable tape recorder on a souvenir stand plying with caps, books and posters outside the National Archives.

On an office building at the juncture where Pennsylvania Avenue makes a turn toward the Capitol, two large banners were fixed where they would be seen Tuesday by the current and future president.

"Welcome Mr President," said one. "Thank you Mr President," said the other.

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Perhaps the most somber place in downtown Washington was a strangely empty White House, where remaining Bush administration aides were packing up.

In the West Wing, walls that once held pictures of Bush meeting world leaders were stripped bare, as aides spoke of a "last day of camp" — the reality that they would soon be leaving slowly sinking in.

Bush himself kept out of sight on his last day in office, as the announcement was made that he had commuted the sentences of two border agents jailed for shooting dead a Mexican drugs smuggler.

Activists and tourists eager to see the Bush era end appeared throughout the day in front of the famed residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to snicker their good-byes.

One person dressed as The Grim Reaper held up a banner reading "Thanks Bush and (Vice President Dick) Cheney for eight prosperous years of murder and mayhem, torture and destruction.

"You boys sure know how to throw a blood bath."


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