By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009
People from across the country are arriving for the inauguration of America's first black president. Who are these people? In their stories is a portrait of a nation. One in a series.
Six hundred thirty-four days ago, Caitlin Ross first stenciled Barack Obama's name on a poster before a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In five more, she'll stand on the Mall and watch him be sworn in as president.
The 21-year-old University of Iowa student had been impressed by an Obama speech she heard during his 2004 Senate campaign. Three years later, as she began to open her eyes to the world during her freshman year, all it took was someone to ask her to join Hawkeyes for Obama. His brand of change resonated deeply, and she quickly became obsessed with his campaign.
"I'm not necessarily a politics person. I've planned on being a teacher for a while, and I still really want to be a teacher," Ross said. "I just really believe in Obama."
Obama's 2007 Earth Day rally turned out to be the beginning. There would be more rallies, sign-making parties and even a windy day spent driving a red minivan behind the president-elect-to-be for nearly 150 miles across Iowa.
"It was a lot different back then," Ross said. "There definitely wasn't as much security, and it must have been before they had paid drivers, because I'm a horrible driver." Speeding from high school gym to union hall, Ross recalled that for much of the day it was just her and Robert Gibbs, the incoming White House spokesman, in the minivan. Ross was impressed that Obama stuck to his message, regardless of his audience.
Weeks later, Ross helped again when Obama spoke on campus.
"I don't know if anyone in the campaign was worried, but I was worried it was not going to be that full," Ross said. "It was the middle of the day on a weekday, and I was afraid people would be like, 'Who is this guy?' "
Throngs arrived, however, and Ross got to pose for a picture with Obama backstage. With her efforts becoming hard to miss, Iowa campaign managers asked Ross to head a get-out-the-vote effort as captain of Precinct 20, a mix of college housing and nearby neighborhoods in Iowa City.
"Oh, did I knock on doors," Ross said. By Jan. 3, 2008, she and hundreds of other students had returned to campus weeks early to caucus. Ross handed out red, white and blue "O" cookies to a surprise turnout of nearly 500. She was still counting delegates there more than 12 hours later when she received a text message that Obama had won.
Ross couldn't separate herself from the campaign after the Iowa caucuses. Classes took a back seat as she drove to Kansas to canvass. "The gratification of school is, like, so much far ahead in the future, and the gratification of getting a vote is, like, really immediate," she said, laughing.
Ross said she was in disbelief after Obama won the election and had to see the inauguration. She sent e-mails to her professors telling them she wouldn't be there for the first week of the semester. She figured many would understand.
"It's so surreal to me that the guy that I met in, like, the Hilton in Iowa City, or whatever the hotel was, is going to be the president of the United States," she said after 11 on a recent night as she left a meeting of inauguration volunteers gathered in the District.
"It's a pinch-me moment every day, especially now that I'm here in D.C. and it's really real. His face is on every newspaper. His face is on my Metro card. I mean, hello. That's ridiculous."