Visitors Flood Hill in Run-Up to Inauguration

Posted January 19, 2009 at 2:37pm

Updated: 5:20 p.m. On a normally sleepy federal holiday, Capitol Hill buzzed Monday afternoon like the parking lot of an NFL stadium an hour before a playoff game kickoff. Thousands of people clustered around the Capitol, the Library of Congress and other monuments, looking down at maps and up with camera lenses. Hawkers set up a make-shift souk on the plaza in front of Union Station, selling Obama flags (“Made in Pakistan”), hats, mugs, calendars, buttons – anything that could have the 44th president’s image stamped onto it could be had for $5. Lines of visitors snaked out the doors of the Congressional office buildings and down the sidewalks, as people waited to pick up precious inaugural tickets that were being held for them by their representatives. Lines were so long, in fact, that staffers had trouble getting to work — and opening up Members’ offices. Several Capitol Police officers said they were told not to let staffers cut in line, in an effort to show constituents that they had equal footing. Spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said that as of Monday afternoon, all Congressional aides with proper identification would be allowed to the front of the line. Elected officials couldn’t get a break either — Democratic Illinois state Sens. Michael Bond and Dan Kotowski stood in line for about 40 minutes to get into the Dirksen Senate Office Building for a meeting at Majority Whip Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) office. In the Dirksen basement, North Carolina residents clogged the hallway outside Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D-N.C.) office, hoping to receive one of about 120 extra tickets the Senator had for the swearing-in. Spokeswoman Sadie Weiner attempted to control the crowd and their expectations, explaining that hundreds of names were already on a waiting list. She had come to work at 7:30 a.m., ready for a busy day of helping constituents “enjoy the historical atmosphere.” The crowd had a much larger African-American representation than is typical of official Washington events, and clearly many of these celebrants were from out of town. On every corner, a person with a map and puzzled look could be heard asking for directions: “Excuse me, do you know where the Longworth building is?” And while the crowd Monday was only a fraction of the masses expected for Tuesday’s inauguration, traffic flow was already proving to be a problem. Hundreds of pedestrians were brought to a halt as concrete barriers funneled them into narrow lines to cross Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, and hundreds of people crossing the other direction clogged the exits. But even penned in at the stoplight, people seemed cheerful. The only shouting was from the vendors peddling their wares: “Obama hats! Obama pins, $2 — three for $5!”