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Across the Country, 'It's Like a New Aura'

By Paul Schwartzman and Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008

On the morning after, Teddy Andrews knew there was one place he needed to go to commemorate Barack Obama's historic triumph: the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where 40 years ago, before hundreds of thousands of African Americans, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. voiced his soaring dream of racial equality.

Grabbing a co-worker, Andrews, 44, walked from his office near Union Station all the way to one of Washington's most iconic memorials. On the spot where King stood, Andrews lay the front page of a newspaper proclaiming Obama's victory, holding it in place with a black wingtip shoe while he snapped a photo with his phone.

"It's a powerful moment," said Andrews, as a woman leaned over to take a photo of the Obama button she placed next to the newspaper. "To stand where Dr. King stood, to show him what he did for us, not just as an African American but as an American. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have this today."

Across the country yesterday, as the cathartic celebration of Tuesday night gave way to the realization that Obama's victory was indeed no dream, the president-elect's supporters marked the historic moment in quieter but no less joyous ways.

In offices and on street corners, at cafes, laundromats and public squares, friends and strangers hugged and laughed, repeating their favorite Obama refrains and speaking of witnessing something almost beyond words.

Everywhere Obama supporters assembled, it seemed, was a giddy sense that the country had achieved a milestone and therefore anything was possible. His most ardent admirers said they don't need to wait for history to draw its conclusions or even for the senator from Illinois to move his family to the White House. In breathless bursts, they rendered their own verdict: Obama's victory had inspired millions and transformed the country.

"I am 87 years old, and last night when that news came on, I cried like a baby," said Beatrice P. Smith, Miss Bea to her friends, as she sat on a white plastic chair by the radiator in the Community Laundromat in Annapolis.

In Chicago, cabdrivers honked their horns in celebration, and police officers went to work wearing Obama socks. Some downtown businesses gave employees the day off, and tourists flocked to Grant Park, the site of Obama's election night rally.

"I think this will cure the racial divide," said Matthew Nallet, a 31-year-old who runs a music production Web site.

Along 125th Street in Harlem, black America's cultural capital, residents and tourists posed for photographs against a huge canvas painting of Obama that went up on a wall next to the famed Apollo Theater. Next door, the Apollo marquee announced in bold lettering: "Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama."

In the Salon at the tony Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., women talked Obama while having their hair done by celebrity stylist John Darin. "It's like a new aura is going around," he said.

In Scranton, Pa., a hardscrabble coal-mining town that is largely white, working-class and Democratic, some voters were so caught up in the moment that they touted Obama's election as a panacea: a cure for everything, everywhere. They seemed to shrug off the tanking economy and two wars that the new president will inherit.

Rosemary Boland, a teachers union official, thought Obama might amend the No Child Left Behind education law. Jack Flanagan, a business manager, talked wistfully about lower taxes and more spending money. The city's mayor, Christopher Doherty, hoped Obama would use federal funds to help fix Scranton's bridges.

"Having a Democrat in the White House will renew a focus on cities that has been lost during the past eight years," said Doherty, a Democrat who supported Obama.

Across the Washington region, some parents kept their kids home from school, homeowners hung American flags outside their front doors, and people paused to replay wild celebrations they had witnessed the night before, from the revelers chanting "Obama!" outside the White House to the foot-stomping carnival that unfolded along U Street NW.

"It's a new day," the dispatcher at a waste management company announced to employees in Prince George's County over a two-way radio. "You can start on the back of the truck and become president of the United States."

At the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia, staff member Ivan Degraff, 19, is accustomed to handing out tickets and answering questions. But when Lavelle Foster-Brown showed up for a tour, she demanded something extra: a hug.

"Crazy," Degraff said at the wonder of it all.

It was a day in which perfect strangers plopped down next to each other and realized they had something in common.

On Metro, where riders rarely exchange words or even glances, a silver-haired man in a yellow rain slicker and a woman with salt-and-pepper hair fell into easy conversation as they waited for an Orange Line train at McPherson Square.

"Oh, may I see the picture?" Elaine Reed of Arlington County asked the man as he read a newspaper. The man obliged, noting how well he thought the photograph captured Obama's triumphant moment.

"Did you see him at Grant Park last night?" Reed asked. "It was like a sea of flowers."

Outside a 7-Eleven in Falls Church, Latino construction workers said they hoped Obama's presidency would bring them a more solid perch in the United States, at least in terms of public acceptance and possibly with changes in immigration policies.

Obama "did not talk about hating us or seem angry, like the other side did," said Jesus Miguel, 50, a day laborer and an illegal immigrant from Mexico. "He talked about American-ness as an idea in which color and race don't matter. That's what we all aspire to."

Some people celebrated by visiting the Lincoln Memorial. In silent clusters, they stood and read the words engraved on the wall that the slain president uttered at Gettysburg about the United States being "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Some scrawled messages on a placard erected at the foot of the memorial by the grass-roots organization Avaaz.

"Congratulations, President Obama -- Best regards from Poland," one person wrote.

"With time and patience God said change would come," scribbled Sheretta Mitchell, 26, visiting from North Carolina.

Michael Wickham, 50, of Baltimore, who described himself as a McCain supporter, said he embraced Obama's victory as a moment unequaled in his lifetime.

"I felt drawn here like it was a magnet," said Wickham, wearing a baseball cap with the inscription "What if." He found it difficult to control his emotions, he said, as he read Lincoln's words and mulled the meaning of Obama's victory.

"They should have the inaugural here," he said. "This should be the place."

Across the country, Democrats said they celebrated Tuesday's election because it marked the impending end for President Bush as well as the beginning for Obama.

At Duke University, four college students sat in a booth at a diner, sipping Diet Cokes and agreeing that they felt more patriotic than they could remember.

"I am just so happy that Bush will not be getting face time anymore," said Brian Tarpinian, 25. "I know with Barack there won't be the fear mongering. It's been constant war for almost my entire lifetime."

Next to Tarpinian, his friend Nick Davis's cellphone buzzed with such text messages from friends as "I love this country!" Davis has spent the past several months in the political mix for the first time in his life. He donated to Obama's campaign and followed every e-mail message Obama sent to supporters.

"They almost made it like a fun game of inclusion," Davis said. "I'm not exactly a shareholder, but I do have a stake. Under Bush I felt totally disenfranchised."

If there was one place that tested the collectiveness of Democratic optimism yesterday, it was the Bishop Street Mall in a Houston suburb long represented in Congress by Tom DeLay (R). The mall is a kind of miniature United Nations. Elderly, white mall walkers make their morning loops in bright white trainers, encircling kiosks staffed by immigrants from Pakistan, Guatemala, Israel, Iran, Mexico and India.

Yesterday, many were united by an admiration for Obama.

"It gives us hope that things are turning around," said Victor Vargas, 29, from Puerto Rico. "I'm not black, but I'm of color, so I think it's a victory for us all. Even if you're white, it's a victory. It shows how far we've come."

Contributing to this report were staff writers Krissah Williams Thompson, reporting from Durham, N.C.; Nick Miroff, from Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Robin Shulman, from Chicago; Keith B. Richburg, from New York; Ashley Surdin, from Los Angeles; Karl Vick, from Sugar Land, Tex.; and N.C. Aizenman, Lori Aratani, David Betancourt, Michael Alison Chandler, Pamela Constable, Ashley Halsey III, Rosalind S. Helderman, Chris L. Jenkins, Robert E. Pierre, Lena H. Sun, Christopher Twarowski, Theresa Vargas and Matt Zapotosky, from Washington.

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