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Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Final hours

Inauguration | George W. Bush and Barack Obama fill pre-inaugural hours with somber tasks

Perhaps you're feeling sorry for anyone standing in the cold, waiting to go through the metal detectors for today's inauguration, where they'll wait hours in line and hours more along the National Mall in Washington.

It's the press crews at Andrews Air Force Base who have to be on hand by 10 this morning-the ones tasked to cover the departure of President George W. Bush-that I pity. They will wait hours on a frosty tarmac for that singular goodbye while all the rest of the world is focused on the hello.

As our 44th president makes his way down Constitution Avenue to begin the inaugural parade, our 43rd president will climb without fanfare into a waiting helicopter and fly to Andrews. At 1:20 p.m. he is scheduled to board the military 747 200B that serves as Air Force One-only this time it will be designated Special Air Mission 28000 because the plane can be called Air Force One only when the sitting president is aboard. George W. Bush will step onto the plane a private citizen, fly to Midland, Texas, and sleep in his own bed tonight.

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With each inauguration I am more transfixed by what news anchor David Brinkley used to call the "wheel of democracy," the sublime dignity with which power changes hands and the most powerful nation in the world-through war, racial turmoil, scandal, recession, and war again-rolls on.

Behind the somber ceremony is frenzy, to be sure. Remember Bill Clinton's all-nighters in January 2001, fixing the list of pardons for rich tax-evading friends like Marc Rich and Pinkey Green? Those were frivolous times. These are not. Among many things we have to prove it is Samson, the 125-pound black Labrador just off a dusk-to-dawn patrol of the Mall this morning-and wearing a human bulletproof vest to show he means business. And a Secret Service command center receiving video feeds from over 5,000 surveillance cams stationed around Washington. Feeds watched today by over a hundred law enforcers from city and federal agencies on five 8-foot square monitors in the command center.

Bush and Obama likewise focused their final pre-inaugural hours on sober tasks. Bush spoke by telephone yesterday with nine world leaders, an interesting array of friend and foes that included Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili. Bush commuted the sentences of two former U.S. Border Patrol agents who faced over 10 years in prison for the non-fatal shooting a Mexican drug dealer. He made Defense Secretary Robert Gates the "designated successor" in the actual moments of transition during the inaugural ceremonies. Should anything catastrophic happen, Gates will ride out the ceremony in an undisclosed location to assume control of the government. And to the last Bush kept to his 7 a.m. daily intelligence briefing routine he established during his own transition to office eight years ago.

Obama began his final day before taking office visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before he took in community service projects at a D.C. high school and at a shelter for homeless teenagers. Along the way he paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., whose 80th birthday was commemorated on Monday, and he ended the day at a private dinner honoring his election opponent, Sen. John McCain. "We are glad that the days of rebuttals and campaigning are for now behind us," Obama said in paying tribute to his former rival. It's a statement that may not hold true in days to come, but may be what makes a day like today one to remember.


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