Practice Inauguration Lacks Some Pomp and the VIPs

By Michael E. Ruane and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 12, 2009

The president wore a beret and a white sign around his neck that said he was the incoming chief executive.

He looked tall and presidential, and when he was introduced yesterday morning on the west front of the Capitol, the crowd beneath the setting moon cheered.

Then he strode to the microphone and gave what might have been the shortest inaugural address in history. "My fellow Americans," he said. "God bless America."

That was it. Brief and a little surreal, as a participant put it later. And so was much of the traditional inauguration rehearsal, the large-scale practice for next week's inaugural ceremonies and parade.

"I think I had an out-of-body experience," said LaSean McCray, 38, the Navy yeoman first class who portrayed soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama. "It was just so awesome and beautiful."

It was real and unreal at the same time: just a practice, with stand-ins for the VIPs. But against the same backdrop as next week's event, with some of the same pomp and music, it felt like its own slice of history.

"I'm just so proud and so glad to be a part of this," said Staff Sgt. Derrick Brooks, 26, of Fayetteville, N.C., who, in his Army beret, portrayed Barack Obama at the Capitol.

"Standing there, looking over the city, it was beautiful, and it felt wonderful to just be there and be a part of this country and know that it's a change, a change in history," he said.

The rehearsal started before dawn on Capitol Hill and ended before noon near the White House. It drew its own crowds and created its own traffic jams as police blocked off streets around the parade route.

Everything, it seemed, that could be practiced was practiced. Ceremonial details were gone over two and three times, according to Howard Gantman, staff director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Several military bands and units, along with bands from Howard University and Dunbar High School, marched the route.

Even the formal departure, in which President Bush will be flown from the Capitol, was practiced, with a Marine Corps helicopter landing and taking off from the East Plaza twice.

The rehearsal unfolded on a damp and windy morning.

At the Capitol, camera flashes winked in the pre-dawn darkness, and sunrise revealed an expanse of folding chairs and ranks of blue porta-potties in place for next week.

As the practice got underway, it seemed to go smoothly.

The swearing-in drill was brief. "Please, raise your right hand and repeat after me," said the stand-in for U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.: "I do solemnly swear."

"I do solemnly swear," Brooks/Obama repeated.

"So help me God," the Roberts stand-in said.

"So help me God," Brooks answered.

Then an announcer said: "The 44th president of the United States, Barack H. Obama."

From the edge of the west lawn of the Capitol cheers erupted among a small crowd of onlookers.

Then Brooks gave his speech.

"Bravo," said a voice from the throng of reporters watching.

There were some glitches.

"We're struggling a little bit," said Thomas Groppel, the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee's director of ceremonies who helped lead the rehearsal and seemed to be everywhere. "Everybody understanding their cues. Everybody understanding their parts. We'll get there."

The parade route was dotted with spectators and workers who hammered away at viewing stands in front of the White House and the John A. Wilson Building.

Painters in white jumpsuits could be seen along Pennsylvania Avenue. They were putting fresh coats of brown paint on light poles. "Gotta spruce it up," one painter said. "Next week, we'll be painting the eagles."

Eagles adorn the tops of dozens of Victorian-style lampposts on the street. Now a faded silver, they will be painted gold for the inauguration, the painter said.

Jackie Engelhardt, 59, a self-proclaimed "news junkie" from Fairfax, attended the rehearsal to photograph the inaugural parade without crowds blocking her view.

Engelhardt and her husband, Jim, have created a "presidential wall" at home, depicting both of President George W. Bush's inaugurations and one of President Bill Clinton's, plus their official inaugural invitations and scenes of Washington.

Engelhardt said the wall will allow her to pass history down to her son and eventually his children. This inauguration, she said, is more historic than any other because of the broken racial barrier, something she thought she would never see happen.

"I've never seen Washington with such a buzz in the 12 years we've lived here," Jim Engelhardt said. "It's a palpable excitement, and it's all good."

Myra Copus, 67, of Annapolis said Obama fever couldn't have caught on at a better time.

"If we didn't have him to look forward to, I think we'd be in quite a mental tailspin," said Copus, who attended the University of Georgia when it was still segregated. "Of course, he's human, so we have to keep our expectations realistic, but it feels so good."

Copus and her friend Joanne Brew, also of Annapolis, said that they would love to attend the inauguration but that the rehearsal was close enough to the real thing to enable them to enjoy the actual parade on television.

Special correspondent Janie Boschma contributed to this report.

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