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For the 57th presidential inauguration, last-minute preparations go on at the United States Capitol, well, until the last minute.
Nearly the very last minute.
It was 5:12 am on Monday. In just five hours, a cavalcade of former presidents cabinet figures, lawmakers and President Obama himself would make their way down an ornate, marble stairwell and walk through the glass center doors of the Capitol. That passage empties onto the West Front of the building where hundreds and thousands would view inauguration pageant from the National Mall.
Yet at 5:12 am, two workers stood outside that entryway, white cloths in one hand, Windex in the other.
After all, if the leader of the free world is going step through that door en route to his second term in office, well, there just had better not be any smudges.
Just feet away, four Capitol workers knelt on the hard, stone floor. An hour earlier, the walkway from the interior steps which descend from the Capitol Rotunda down to the outer doorway was covered with a long tarp. Cardboard protected the floor beneath. Strips of blue adhesive tape secured it at the edges. But these workers were busy rolling out the red carpet. A crimson tapestry with red piping which led from the staircase to the outer doorway.
All a part of the final preparations.
Elsewhere in the Capitol, a graveyard shift of workers toiled.
One man polished the brass rails that led down the center staircase.
Just off the Rotunda, a worker meticulously vacuumed each step of an obscure Senate staircase.
The distinct essence of new carpeting wafted through the Capitol as workers hustled in the days leading up to the inauguration to replace many of the worn rugs which line the building’s corridors.
The sound of special floor waxers emanated from the Capitol Rotunda as workers tended to the floors one final time before the big show.
And then there were the special preparations.
A multi-platform riser for television reporters was stationed below the painting “George Washington Resigning His Commission” inside the Rotunda. TV crews had laid their wires and set up their cameras the night before for stand-ups and to capture images of President Obama and his family as they returned to the Capitol for the inauguration luncheon. Duct tape denoted each camera position: CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX across the stand.
Regal, royal blue draperies hung from each entrance to the Rotunda.
Just a few steps away, Statuary Hall – the old House chamber – had been converted into an ornate dining room. Special china and crystal had long been set at round tables for the post-ceremony lunch of steamed lobster, hickory grilled bison, baby golden beets and Hudson Valley apple pie.
And then there were the more pragmatic preparations around the Capitol.
Miles of electrical cables and television lines snaked throughout the building to accommodate one of the most heavily-telecast events of the year. Special lights hung from the ceiling of the Crypt. Television monitors were everywhere. Shotgun microphones protruded from small stands in corners to capture the ambient sound of dignitaries walking to the ceremony.
Positioning all of the distinguished guests on the balustrade in an orderly fashion requires stage management and timing. To keep everything on schedule, someone arranged a digital clock between the legs of the Samuel Adams statue in the Crypt.
All night long, banks of specially-rigged television lights near the Mall bathed the Capitol. Even though it was dark, thousands of people surged onto the Mall in the pre-dawn cold. Although the people were invisible from the Capitol, flashes popped from iPhones as they snapped pictures – each flicker a beacon revealing they were really there.
The sun rose in Washington at 7:22 am Monday. Salmon-tinted streaks of the aurora’s first strands filtered across the Mall. The light glinted off the glass towers of Rosslyn, VA, across the Potomac and radiated the roofs of the National Gallery of Art and National Museum of Natural History.
Meantime, the innards of the Capitol bustled.
A parade of serving crews pushed a procession of catering carts through the Capitol’s basement tunnels in preparation for the lunch. Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Frank Pallone (D-NJ) Gene Green (D-TX) and Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) walked through the Capitol early, each bundled up, ready to weather the cold for several hours. Actress Eva Longoria showed up early as well. She hosted the Latino Inaugural Ball at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. Longoria posed for a photograph in an off-orange trench coat at the center of the Capitol crypt, the nexus of Washington’s four geographical quadrants which divide the city.
As the clock crept toward 10 am, scores of lawmakers toted their coats into the House chamber as it prepared for a brief session. To help members brave the elements, someone positioned several boxes of Grabber hand warmers on the legislative managers’ desks on both sides of the aisle. Lawmakers then filed out of the chamber en route to the West Front for the ceremony.
The temperature snuck into the low forties on Monday afternoon. But that was plenty cold for some. Pop couple John Mayer and Katy Perry hung around for President Obama’s speech but snuck back into the Capitol to get warm during the poem “One Today” by Richard Blanco. Perry took a picture of a portrait of the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first African American woman to serve in Congress.
Lawmakers made it until the end of the ceremony. But despite donning a Russian style ushanka hat, Rep. George Holding (R-NC) was the first one back inside.
“I thought this was going to be enough (to stay warm). I should have put the earflaps down,” said Holding. “I spent five years in Massachusetts and I swore I would never be that cold again.”
After everyone warmed up, they assembled Statuary Hall for the traditional inauguration lunch. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) chaired this year’s inauguration committee and helped select the menu. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chaired the festivities four years ago.
“The last time around, there was a lot of worry and angst. This time, I could sit down and enjoy it because somebody else was in charge,” Feinstein said.
Bison was the most popular item on Schumer’s bill of fare. Feinstein said she had never before tried bison. But the California Democrat described this order as “tasty and tender.”
After the lunch, Mr. Obama and other Congressional leaders walked into the Capitol Rotunda to pause for a moment by the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. Twelve statues ring the Rotunda’s circumference. King is one of only three statues which don’t depict presidents.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. wasn’t in the Rotunda when the president made his homage to King on the very federal holiday which bears the name of the slain civil rights leader. Jackson said this inauguration was different for President Obama than four years ago.
“At some point you go from Jackie Robinson to others. You go to Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. You judge him not just by the novelty of the first black president…but by the record,” said Jackson. “More people have health care. More people have access to Pell Grants. The Auto companies are doing better. We are out of Iraq.”
Of course, few Republicans share Jackson’s view of President Obama. While some appreciated the mood of the bipartisan, bison-tipped luncheon, many were openly critical of the tone the president set during his address.
“It sounded like a campaign speech. It was soaring rhetoric,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
Still, Portman described the lunch as “a rare moment in Washington where everyone can get together.”
NPR’s Tamara Keith then asked the Ohio Republican how long the sides can maintain the good-feeling “buzz” generated by the lunch.
With a grin on his face, Portman then rolled back his left cuff with his right index finger to glance at his watch.