60,000 Volunteer for Inauguration; Most Won't Make Cut

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

An unprecedented 60,000 people have sent applications to the Presidential Inaugural Committee to volunteer for activities surrounding the swearing-in of Barack Obama -- even if it means simply giving directions or friendly hellos to out-of-towners at airports and Metro stops.

With several days of events, including the Jan. 20 swearing-in, the committee needs 15,000 to 18,000 volunteers, officials said. That's three times as many as were called upon for the inaugurations of George W. Bush.

Committee spokesman Kevin Griffis said: "There's a hunger out there. People want to get involved. People want to be a part of this thing . . . a part of history."

Officials have thinned the applicant pool to about 27,000, said Tripp Wellde, the committee's director of volunteers. They've been screening the offers via questionnaires that focus on availability and capability. But the applications keep coming in through the committee's Web site, with a deadline set for 11:59 p.m. tomorrow.

Volunteers will be responsible for their own transportation and housing, and they won't be paid, Wellde said. Those selected won't necessarily get within a mile of the nation's first African American president, but they will be provided with food, a commemorative credential and a red winter cap.

The committee is especially looking for local volunteers who know the Washington area.

"We're going to have so many folks coming in here from out of state, from out of town, we want to make sure that we give people a good, positive experience," Wellde said. "The more people that we have volunteering for us from the D.C. area . . . we just think it's going to make people's experience even better."

Some applicants have applied for specific jobs, he said.

"We always have people who offer to be up there to hold the Bible," Wellde said. "We've had an incredible amount of people who have shown interest in wanting to be up there standing next to [Obama]. Unfortunately, most of our volunteer roles will not be standing next to the president-elect, if not all of them."

Although it's not yet clear who will be holding the Bible when the oath of office is taken, the book is usually held by the president-elect's spouse, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies said yesterday.

Wellde said volunteers who are accepted will be notified by e-mail and asked to sign up for a training session. They will be divided into teams of 15, each with a "captain."

The enormous crowds anticipated could require large numbers of volunteers, he said. He estimated that 6,000 volunteers would be required to work on the Mall, where upward of 2 million people are expected to gather for the swearing-in. An additional 2,800 volunteers would likely be needed to staff the inaugural parade route. And thousands more would be needed to help at balls and the rest of the week's inaugural events.

Applications can be found and filed on the Presidential Inaugural Committee's Web site, http://www.pic2009.org.

One early volunteer is Gail Wise, who said she was in high school the last time she was so excited about a presidential inauguration. It was 1961. Her work stuffing envelopes for John F. Kennedy earned her a ticket to his swearing-in. But when the day came, she had a biology exam, and her parents told her that she could attend Kennedy's next inauguration.

She recalled listening to the ceremonies on a transistor radio while dissecting a frog.

But there would be no second inauguration for Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. "So, of course, I never ever got there," she said.

Now 63, retired with children and grandchildren, Wise said yesterday that this time, "I am bound and determined to be there."

Wise, of Leesburg, who worked in Loudoun County for Obama during the campaign, already is at work helping the Presidential Inaugural Committee match other volunteers with jobs.

Wise, who said she has no title, said she and others worked for Obama during the primaries and the general election and are working for him again "because something was ignited and we can't settle down and go back to our lives."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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