Next stop: history

Baltimore cheers Obama on his way to White House

Thousands brave the cold to see their next president

January 18, 2009|By Robert Little | Robert Little,

Barack Obama arrived in Baltimore yesterday on the next-to-last stop of his two-year trip to the White House, paying homage to the city's history as he urged a crowd of 40,000 well-wishers to support and defend America with the same fervor as their counterparts who defended Fort McHenry.

Walking onto a temporary stage at War Memorial Plaza with a shout of "Hello, Baltimore! Thank you, Baltimore!" Obama called on Americans to make sure that his election as the 44th president "is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning."

"We are here today not simply to pay tribute to those patriots who founded our nation in Philadelphia or defended it in Baltimore, but to take up the cause for which they gave so much," said Obama, who had left Philadelphia by private train earlier in the day on the way to Washington and his inauguration on Tuesday.

It was a journey of ascendency steeped in symbolism, modeled after an inaugural journey by another Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln. But unlike Lincoln, who slipped through Baltimore in disguise because of assassination threats, Obama arrived downtown just three minutes behind schedule, threatened only by the near-arctic temperatures.

Complaints were scarce within the ebullient crowd, swollen by people who said they were drawn to the historic nature of Obama's presidency.

Among them was Wanda Green, a 53-year-old Centreville woman who said the memory of her late aunt "compelled her" to attend Obama's speech. Her aunt, she said, raised her while working as a housekeeper for white families on the Eastern Shore. She remembers her scrubbing their floors and ironing their clothes.

"She went through so much, but she told me that one day a black person would do this," Green said. "It sends chills through my body hearing him speak."

Stepping off the train a few hundred yards short of the platform at Penn Station just before 4 p.m., then traveling down St. Paul Street by motorcade, Obama spoke for 15 minutes before climbing down from the stage to greet supporters, hemmed in by a shield of Secret Service agents.

"Baltimore, starting now, let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union," Obama said to shouts and cheers and the muted applause of thousands of gloves and mittens.

War Memorial Plaza was ringed with security fences, which city police officers opened just after 1 p.m. to shouts of joy from people who had been standing in line for as long as five hours. A viewing section near the front of the stage was full within minutes, almost three hours before the president-elect was scheduled to speak.

An overflow viewing area with video screens was set up in the Inner Harbor, though only 100 or so people chose to watch outside in the cold, which measured 20 degrees when Obama arrived. City officials had worried about cold-related health issues and set up heated tents for emergencies. Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said that a "handful" of people were transported to local hospitals and there were no serious incidents.

"People really prepared for the event," Sharfstein said. "We had a few people in the warming tents and very few transported to the hospital."

The president-elect said he chose to stop in Baltimore because of the city's role in American history. He noted the battle against the British at Fort McHenry in 1814 and the subsequent writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," making particular mention that the fort's defenders included a former slave.

But local officials also credited Maryland's modern politics with drawing the president-elect on his last scheduled stop outside Washington before he is sworn into office. Nearly 62 percent of Marylanders who voted in November's general election voted for Obama.

"It is so fitting that Baltimore and Maryland, who supported Barack Obama like no other state did, it is so fitting today he returns just before he gets sworn in," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who addressed the crowd minutes before the president-elect spoke.

Gov. Martin O'Malley also helped introduce Obama, saying, "You can feel the optimism, can't you? This is an important, beautiful day that we will remember for the rest of our lives."

Absent from the stage was Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was charged Jan. 9 with felony theft, perjury, fraud and misconduct in office - charges she has denied. In his introductory remarks Obama did not mention the mayor by name, though he thanked the mayors of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., at stops earlier in the day.

Obama said he chose to begin his trip in Philadelphia because of the city's role in the nation's founding. In Wilmington the train stopped to pick up a local resident, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who commuted to Washington by train during his six terms in the U.S. Senate and was introduced by the train's conductor yesterday.

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