Obama picks Ordinary Joes to join Washington Express
Forty 'everyday Americans' will join the President-elect on his photogenic rail trip homage to Abraham Lincoln
Thursday 15 January 2009
When Barack Obama steps aboard a special Amtrak train at Philadelphia's ornate 30th Street Station on Saturday, he will be joined by 40 "everyday Americans". The inauguration theme is "Renewing America's Promise" and, on his 135-mile journey to Washington, the President-elect will see closed-down factories, toxic dumps and inner-city blight.
In the months ahead, edited footage of this journey will be used to promote the Obama agenda as he tries to breathe life back into the country's near-paralysed economy and expediently back away from promises made on the campaign trail. That is where the 40 ordinary Americans on board should prove helpful. They are really hand-picked extras in the selling of the presidency.
The journey has provoked jitters about security. The President-elect will be climbing aboard what is, in effect, a moving target that will slowly travel through three states, making stops in Wilmington and Baltimore. However, the route will be protected by the Secret Service, and chemical, biological and radiological detectors have been placed along the way. Security measures will be in place "in the air, on the ground and in the water", according to the train operator, Amtrak. The Coast Guard has banned shipping from the Delaware river, whose northern shore the train will pass along, and other rivers the train will pass over.
Mr Obama likes to wrap himself in the mantle of his political hero, Abraham Lincoln, another lawyer who began his journey to the White House from Springfield, Illinois. Numerous Presidents-elect travelled by rail to Washington before taking up office but Mr Obama draws particularly close parallels between his life and the 16th President's.
Lincoln was meant to arrive in Washington in February 1861, shortly after several Southern states seceded and before the Civil War broke out. He was warned about a plot to kill him in Baltimore, and wore a disguise as he boarded the train in the small hours for the trip to Washington, a city also seething with Confederate sympathisers.
Lincoln spurned security and numerous attempts were made on his life. In one, a bullet passed through his top hat as he rode his horse near his Washington weekend cottage.
His eventual assassination, four years later, unleashed a rage for vengeance in which the arrested conspirators were shackled, hooded and tortured. They were paraded into court in shackles and hoods – which they wore 24 hours a day – looking not unlike the inmates of Guantanamo.
Back in 1861, African-American excitement about Lincoln's inauguration was high, just as it is today for Mr Obama. But he inherits an economy in meltdown with a new war in the Middle East adding to the problems of the two wars the US is already embroiled in.
For Saturday's journey, the President-elect's image-makers have scouted out locations, planned shots and screened participants to ensure no embarrassments occur. The last thing they need is another encounter with a "Joe the Plumber" to embarrass the President-elect.
"Each one of these families has their own remarkable story to add to our American story," said Josh Earnest, who speaks for the inauguration committee. And, in the weeks and months to come, documentary-style footage taken with hand-held cameras will be released with sun-dappled scenes of well-wishers waving to the young President-elect as the train makes its way towards the federal capital.
One of the passengers is Lilly Ledbetter, from Alabama, who went all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost, in an attempt to receive equal pay for equal work. Ms Ledbetter worked at a Goodyear tyre factory for nearly 20 years, and didn't know she was being discriminated against until it was too late. She had a cameo role at the Democratic convention last August when she said: "I hoped a verdict would make Goodyear learn a lesson and stop treating women unfairly. But our highest court sided with big business." The new Congress is expected quickly to adopt an equal pay bill with her name on it.
Then there are the social workers Alicia and Jim Girardeau of Missouri, who hosted Candidate Obama while he addressed the Denver convention from their living room just after his wife, Michelle, made her speech. That carefully staged event was overshadowed by another drama about Hillary Clinton and whether she was being shown sufficient deference. But Time magazine saved the day by featuring a photograph of Mr Obama sitting on the Girardeaus' couch.
The role set aside for Tony Fischer on the sound-stage-on-wheels is that of the war veteran who wants to do nothing more than chat to the President-elect about their favourite television drama, The Wire. Now 30 years old, Mr Fischer volunteered for Mr Obama after returning from his second tour in Iraq where he had been an army gunner. He teaches English in Cincinnati and is used to rubbing shoulder with Democratic big-wigs. He introduced the Vice-President-elect, Joe Biden, before a foreign policy speech in Cincinnati during the election.
The role assigned to him is demonstrating that the President-elect is a man of the people. Though he was born to a single mother who relied on food stamps to make ends meet, from an early age, Mr Obama benefited from the finest US education on offer, starting out at Punahou School in Hawaii and finishing up at Harvard Law School.
As soon as Mr Biden and his wife have joined the train from their home in Wilmington, Delaware, it will be a short hop to gritty Baltimore, Maryland, where the television series is set. "I heard he was a big fan of The Wire," said Mr Fisher, "so I might be curious to see what season he likes best and who was his favourite character."
Mr Obama has asked a community activist from Cleveland, Ohio, named Liza Hazirjian, to join him as well. Ms Hazirjian, 40, is a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and she helped recruit volunteers from the gay community to work on the Obama campaign. She intends to bend the President-elect's ear about upcoming legislation that will ban discrimination against gays in the workplace. If she has any intention of criticising him for inviting the anti-gay preacher Rick Warren to give the invocation, she is keeping it under her hat.
When Shandra Jackson got a phone call from the Obama team on New Year's Day offering her a ride on the train, the 34-year-old single mother from Virginia first thought it was a prank call. "The only thing that came out of my mouth was 'Wow'," she said.
Ms Jackson represents the millions of Americans caught in a healthcare trap. She was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm last year and doctors have yet to operate. She fears for her son's future if something were to happen to her. But the downturn means healthcare reform, along with many other promises, are being pushed aside. Explaining that to the voters is the challenge which Mr Obama's image-makers must contend with.
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