The first event of the nation's 55th inaugural celebration starts three days of celebration and security measures today, beginning the festivities with a salute to the military.
About 2 p.m., President Bush is expected to be at MCI Center for "Saluting Those Who Serve," part of a program that includes the swearing-in and inaugural speech, a youth concert hosted by the Bush twins, fireworks, and black-tie balls and private lunches and dinners for donors who are underwriting the cost of the week.
Although the majority of out-of-towners are expected to arrive at their hotels today, some flew in yesterday, laden with designer luggage, gowns and furs.
The inauguration will be the first since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Homeland Security officials have said that they have heard no increase in chatter about a possible attack during the week, but the city will be cloaked in a blanket of security more tightly than any inauguration in history. More than 100 square blocks of Washington will be closed to vehicles on Inauguration Day, Thursday. Officials plan to deploy 6,000 law enforcement officers and 7,000 U.S. troops.
Yesterday, workers with cleaning buckets and rags buffed folding chairs on the arena floor as members of the military holding state flags practiced their entrance at MCI.
Country singer John Michael Montgomery walked onto the shiny black stage, framed in gold and adorned with silver stars, to try out his heart-tugging wartime ballad "Letters From Home."
With a fog machine purring and spotlights whirling, Montgomery -- his usual cowboy attire replaced with a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt -- took the microphone before a backdrop twinkling with hundreds of tiny lights, singing of a letter and a father's pride:
I hold it up and show my buddies,
Like we ain't scared and our boots ain't muddy, but no one laughs,
'Cause there ain't nothing funny when a soldier cries. . . .
It was a rough rendition, concluded by a cough, but a smattering of soldiers yelped approval.
"It sounds good. But I know when the crowd gets crankin' in here, we'll get drowned out. I've had that happen before," Montgomery said.
The MCI event, to be hosted by actor Kelsey Grammer and expected to feature 7,000 military personnel in the audience, will draw on letters from members of the armed forces past and present as a way to link the war in Iraq -- and America's commander in chief -- with historic military struggles.
Participants took dry runs before a large teleprompter yesterday, reading soldiers' letters, one from the Civil War, another from Afghanistan, and offering personal testimonials.
"Ladies and gentleman, the president of the United States. . . ," an announcer boomed during a rehearsal. A group of people walked onstage, including a woman who introduced herself and said that her father had been killed in Vietnam the day she was born. A widow spoke of her husband's death in Iraq. Their stories were followed by others.
"That's going to be the get-out-your-handkerchief portion of the show," said Grammy Award-winner Tom Scott, a supporter of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) who was recruited by a friend and organizer two weeks ago to be the event's musical director.
Scott said honoring those in the military is nonpartisan, as is joining in the inauguration. "It doesn't mean I'll boycott my government because my guy didn't get in. That's idiotic," Scott said.
While the rehearsal was in full swing at the MCI Center, those arriving in the area yesterday appeared much more focused on having a good time and witnessing a piece of history than how security measures might affect their visit.
At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, there was more Texas twang in the air than usual. On a jet from Dallas, Linda Harper-Brown could hear people talking about the inauguration the whole way; most people on the flight were headed to ceremonies and parties in Washington, she said.
Harper-Brown, a Texas state representative, was excited, too. "We're here because we want to see our president sworn in," she said as her husband pulled Louis Vuitton luggage off the conveyor belt. "We were here in 2000, and the opening ceremony was the most impressive -- it practically just brought tears to our eyes."
At Dulles International Airport, 22 students from Jack & Terry Mannion Middle School in Henderson, Nev., arrived for a five-day trip that is to include a tour of the White House and the Pentagon, a visit to the Smithsonian and the inauguration.
Mannion's librarian, Jackie Welch-Doubek, 50, who has organized trips to the last three inaugurations, said seeing the ceremony and the sights "makes history books come alive." The travelers began planning months before the election, holding potluck suppers to iron out details of the trip and discuss which sites they would visit.
They said they made sure to pack long johns to ward off the cold and binoculars to help guarantee a good view.
Briana Eakin, a sixth-grader, pronounced the trip "really cool" and said she voted for Bush in a mock election held at her school. "I feel like history is happening right now," she said.
Reagan National Airport was awash with Bush supporters, marked by their patriotic-shaded wardrobes.
Cattle rancher Michael Baker doesn't like to leave Guy, Ark. (population 500). "Just to get him to go anywhere off the farm is a big deal," said his wife, Penny.
The second inauguration of President Bush was enough to get Baker, 56, onto his first airplane trip in more than a dozen years and his first-ever journey to Washington. Baker, wearing a black cowboy hat and tan boots yesterday, said his admiration for Bush -- not the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration ceremony -- persuaded him to make the trip.
It surely wasn't the weather. The cold is expected to continue today, according to Steve Zubrick, science operations officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Sterling. Zubrick said an Alberta Clipper frontal system will sweep through the region tomorrow, possibly leaving a dusting of snow. On Thursday, high temperatures are expect to reach the low 40s, he said, with a weak secondary front passing through the area that should bring partly to mostly cloudy skies and a slight chance of snow showers.
To help brighten the festivities on frigid days, florist Charles Kremp of Willow Grove, Pa., was hard at work in Southeast Washington on inaugural flower arrangements. The 200 floral designers and other professionals he is supervising gathered in the brick warehouse and began to turn three tractor-trailer loads of flowers into more than 3,500 inaugural arrangements.
"The main challenge is getting all this together and getting up to speed in hours, not days," said Kremp, an inaugural veteran.
After the event at MCI Center this afternoon is the youth concert at the D.C. Armory. There will also be a reception sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee for donors who contributed $100,000 or more.
The expansive and expensive festivities come at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans have expressed a preference for a smaller, less costly affair. Organizers have estimated that the extravaganza could cost as much as $40 million.
According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, two out of three Americans favor a more subdued inauguration, including nearly half of those who voted for Bush and eight out of 10 supporters of Kerry. A third of the public supports continuing the tradition of elaborate inaugural celebrations, the survey found.
Staff writers Maureen Fan, Susan Kinzie, Maria Glod and Amit R. Paley and director of polling Richard Morin contributed to this report.