Todd Shapiro was one of the first in line yesterday at the "will call" ticket office at the Loews Hotel at L'Enfant Plaza, flying in from New York City on Saturday night just to pick up his inaugural tickets. He planned to fly back home yesterday, then return to Washington tomorrow for the start of the inaugural celebrations.
"I wanted to be the first in line to pick up my tickets to the ball," Shapiro said, as he lounged on a chair in the lobby, tickets in hand. "I was second or third."
This week's inauguration will be the fifth for Shapiro, who owns a public relations company. He didn't vote for President Bush, he said, but is still eager to watch him take his second oath of office. "Whether it was Bush or Kerry, I wouldn't miss it for the world," he said. "I don't think of the inauguration as a celebration of one candidate winning. I think the inauguration is a celebration of our right to vote."
Then his serious tone disappeared. "It's also a great big party," Shapiro said, a Louis Vuitton scarf wrapped around his neck and a constantly ringing cell phone in one hand. "You don't have to be Republican, you don't have to be a Democrat to love to party."
The opening of the will-call office helped put a face on the swarms of visitors descending on Washington from across the country this week for three days of partying and to support the 55th presidential inauguration. As hotels prepared to receive guests and designers clothed their clients and intelligence officers double-checked security plans, some visitors might have caught a sneak preview of the parade. Preparations for the extravaganza, which had 10,000 participants and shuttered streets for a two-hour dress rehearsal, began before dawn yesterday.
By breakfast, the nearly deserted streets of downtown echoed with the sounds of military music and marching boots in a full rehearsal of the inauguration, minus the president and the high school bands. In their places -- at the mock swearing-in or marching down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House -- were men and women from the five military services, signs around their necks to denote the groups they represented.
Tourists and morning joggers paused to watch the spectacle and feel the pavement vibrate as feet clad in black leather boots, suede desert boots and patent leather shoes struck the ground. Instead of the dress uniforms they will wear Thursday, most of the troops wore green and desert camouflage uniforms, earmuffs and knit caps.
"It's a celebration of democracy," said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Price of Morgantown, W.Va., a saxophonist with the Army Field Band who played at the second inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1997 and his 2001 departure from Andrews Air Force Base. "I'm extremely proud to be part of that tradition."
For the first inauguration since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, members of the military marching in the parade will have to pass through the same security checks as the public. No metal detectors were on hand for the rehearsal, so they briefly stopped before stepping onto the Mall, as if there were.
Several said that as they practiced, their thoughts were trained on distant battlefields.
Sgt. 1st Class Mark Regensburger of Vassar, Mich., who plays tuba in the Army band, found himself thinking of two members of the 82nd Airborne Division he knew when he was a member of that unit's band. "Every day, you get up and prepare and train," he said just before lifting his 40-pound instrument and setting off. "Some days it leads to the ultimate sacrifice. Knowing people you've worked beside who have paid that sacrifice is a sobering thought."
Many tourists were startled when they came across the parade. "I knew there was an inauguration party on January 20," Katsuya Nakashima, a visitor from Japan, said as he recorded the procession with one camera while his wife, Kaori, stood at his side shooting with another. "But I was surprised to see this today. It was very impressive."
Other visitors came to town specifically to watch the rehearsal. For Tonya Ryman, a two-hour drive from her home in Strasburg, Va., and the chill of a January morning were not enough to dissuade her and her sons, Seth, 14, and Evan, 9, from waking up early to watch the procession. Ryman said she wanted her sons, both of whom dream of joining the Navy, to be a part of history.
"We're definitely behind [the troops] 150,000 percent," Ryman said. "So, I think it does mean a lot more this year."
Thursday, they'll watch it on television at home. Today, she said, "it may be the practice run, but we're still here."
People who will be here for the real thing were eager to get to the will-call office.
Vietnam veteran Johnnie Williams drove nearly 20 hours straight from New Orleans, stopping for gas, a Subway sandwich and fried chicken. He arrived early Saturday and showed up at will-call clutching a letter from the president that began, "Dear Johnnie," and thanked him for being a campaign volunteer. "When you receive a personal invitation, it's hard to refuse," said Williams, 58, who also received an invitation from the inaugural committee.
Across town, another type of trial run took place. At a U.S. military command center in an unmarked brick building in Southwest Washington, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel sat in three rows facing a series of television and computer displays yesterday morning. Ceiling-mounted red strobe lights flashed whenever people without security clearances were present.
After a secret briefing about air security, about 100 troops under Navy Rear Adm. Jan C. Gaudio tested the readiness of U.S. combat teams, medical units, chemical and biological incident response forces and others in the rehearsal. Officers listened at one point as a colleague relayed decontamination sites and weather forecasts in the event of a chemical release.
"This is the day, that if you have any questions about your procedures and systems' ability to communicate and coordinate, this is the day we need to resolve it. Here on in, it's game time," Gaudio said. "This is a huge event. I don't think I need to tell you that. We're ready. Good luck."
While life was quiet at many area hotels yesterday, employees scurried behind the scenes to get ready before most guests start arriving tomorrow. At the Willard InterContinental Washington, only a couple of hundred square feet of red carpet remained to be installed from the Peacock Alley promenade and out the hotel's front entrance. Ceiling-to-floor royal-blue drapes festooned with white stars billowed at the entrance. Still to come were the six yellow rose of Texas topiaries to prettify the lobby and hundreds of American flags to frame hotel room windows.
"We had brainstorming sessions about how to make the Willard dance," said Barbara Bahny, the hotel's public relations director and one of its planners of pre-inaugural finery. "The 200 flags are so the whole building will look like its fluttering."
Some hotel customers, meanwhile, have begun packing. Gayla Bentley, a high-end fashion designer from Houston, said her clients are packing ensembles for every occasion to which they are invited. She even designed a comfortable outfit -- pants, a zipper jacket and a pashmina shawl -- for one woman's plane ride north.
"These are well-planned people," Bentley said. "They booked hotel rooms as soon as the election took place and have reservations everywhere."
Many clients did not pick anything too ostentatious, given the state of events in Iraq and South Asia, she said. They're choosing $2,000 outfits that are more "respectful" and comfortable from a product line that can cost as much as $10,000.
"People want to be elegant, not too showy," she said. "This is not the Golden Globes."
Staff writers Nancy Trejos, Nicole Fuller, Jennifer Lenhart and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.