Obama Looks to Future With a Nod to His Past
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; Page A01
To help him celebrate his imminent move into the White House, Barack Obama invited more than 100 of his closest friends and relatives to gather here over the weekend. Everywhere he turned the past few days, he has been surrounded by high school classmates from Hawaii and former college professors, basketball buddies and political mentors -- a tableau of the people, places and moments that delivered him to the presidency.
They were drawn here to commemorate what Obama will become. But, like all good reunions, they spent more time talking about the past.
Members of his class at Honolulu's Punahou School met in Arlington to reminisce about their chubby, basketball-obsessed peer. Relatives from Chicago relaxed at Blair House on furniture donated by Dwight D. Eisenhower and recalled the humble second-story apartment where Michelle Obama was raised. Political allies from the Illinois Senate told stories about the rookie politician who sought incessant advice.
Obama himself paused yesterday to consider the magnitude of assuming office as the nation's 44th president. He spoke about his connection to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday that celebrates his birth and, while taking part in community service, fondly remembered his summer job as a 17-year-old painter working for $4 an hour. Then, in the middle of his day, Obama took a two-hour break to visit with his guests at Blair House.
"There's a comfort that comes from having all of us around and experiencing this with them," said Kaye Wilson, a close friend from Chicago and godmother to Obama's two daughters. "They are the kind of people who know how to step back and enjoy a moment like this, and we're enjoying it right along with them."
Obama invited about 10 friends to ride the train with his family from Philadelphia into Washington on Saturday, and they threw a 45th-birthday party for Michelle while en route from Baltimore to Union Station. On Sunday, the Obama family hosted about 100 friends at Blair House for a casual buffet-and-cocktails party. The couple specifically requested that nobody make a formal speech, friends said. Instead, they gave tours of the house and mingled with an eclectic group of relatives, some of whom they had not seen since the Democratic National Convention in August.
"You could tell they just wanted to see everybody and relax," said Steve Shields, Michelle Obama's uncle, who traveled from Chicago.
Several of Obama's friends, a few of whom had never been to Washington until this weekend, described their inaugural visits as surreal. About a dozen family members are staying with the Obamas at Blair House, including one guest who is assigned to a room where Abraham Lincoln liked to take naps. More friends are stationed in a block of rooms at the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue NW.
Yesterday, a bus filled with friends Obama made while working as a community organizer departed the South Side of Chicago for the drive to Washington. The group will arrive early this morning, watch the inauguration and then turn around.
A small army of Obama's staffers tends to his guests, providing security, daily itineraries and transportation around the city in three private buses. The members of Obama's entourage have VIP passes to the swearing-in ceremony today and tickets to the Obama Home States Inaugural Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center tonight. Most of them plan to leave Thursday, but Obama has said he hopes to rendezvous again before then.
For many of the visitors, the mere experience of traveling here reinforced Obama's transition into a different realm. Gerald Kellman, Obama's boss as a community organizer, had to purchase a new black suit. The in-laws from Chicago -- many of whom still live near Michelle Obama's childhood home on the South Side -- joked that they would feel uncomfortable being treated like honored guests. "We're usually more like do-it-yourself people," Shields said.
"The staff is really doing everything for us. It's wonderful," said Wilson, who is staying with her husband in a room at Blair House where fresh flowers are placed on her table each morning. "You have to pinch yourself. It might be hard to go home."