WASHINGTON — Even an unexpected blizzard couldn’t stop former Gov. Angus King from driving from Maine to the nation’s capital to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
“I was here on the Mall in August of 1963. I heard the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” King said Monday at a luncheon to honor Maine’s politicians at the New Zealand Embassy. “For me, it’s a circle, and I want to be back on the Mall when it closes.”
The Mainers who crowded into the embassy to celebrate the inauguration — from the state’s political lions to 17-year-old Jack Baldacci — seemed struck by the historic importance of the day’s events. They also seemed delighted to have been invited to the lunch, which featured New Zealand lamb, smoked seafood from Maine, and a guest list that was a veritable “Who’s who in Maine politics.”
Gov. John Baldacci even proclaimed Jan. 19, 2009, “New Zealand Day” throughout Maine.
“It’s a great success by any measure,” said Severin Beliveau, a founding partner of Preti Flaherty, the law firm that sponsored the event. “I think we satisfied a real feeling and desire on the part of many people from Maine to congregate during the inauguration.”
Beliveau’s son, Emmett Beliveau, took some time away from his official duties as director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee to say a few words at the embassy. The younger Beliveau is responsible for making sure that all the inaugural events run smoothly, including Sunday’s “We Are One” concert, which drew an estimated half-million spectators.
“It’s been fabulous,” he said. “More than 80,000 people signed up on our Web site to volunteer. We actually interviewed volunteers, because we could only use 15,000 of them.”
The Washington Metro set a new record for ridership on Sunday and Emmett Beliveau said that he expected ridership to double on the day of the inauguration.
He said that they’ve been getting weather updates throughout the day, and joked that the Mainers in town for the inauguration might have their expertise in shoveling put to good use on Tuesday.
“I know I don’t need to tell anyone in this room how to prepare for the weather,” he said.
Emmet Beliveau was a celebrity among the political campaigners, lawyers and private businessmen who gathered at the embassy. The guest list also included many of the state’s politicians.
“People are ready for a change,” U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, said. “There’s so much excitement, not only in D.C., but nationwide.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was “delighted” to be part of the occasion.
“This inauguration has a sense of excitement that’s greater than in previous years,” she said. “People are excited and want their new president to succeed, whether they voted for him or not. Everyone appears to be pulling together for a common cause. It’s refreshing.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said lawmakers are eager to see Obama assume office, and said the stimulus package he proposed will be the first major order of business.
“His talk of being bipartisan and independent fits well with the Maine political ethic,” Pingree said. “He had an early, strong support team in Maine, and it just grew.”
Maine’s first lady, Karen Baldacci, was still aglow with the excitement of watching celebrities up close and personal among the audience and performers at Sunday’s concert, including George Lucas and Angela Bassett.
“It was incredible,” she said. “We were right up front in the VIP seats. We were doing a little VIP spotting ourselves.”
Her teenage son was hanging out at the embassy with some of his younger cousins and listening to hip-hop on his iPod, but took some time out to talk about Obama.
“I loved his speech in Colorado,” Jack Baldacci said. “He’s a leader that all kinds of kids like. He’s inspirational, and I enjoyed it.”
Jack’s dad, the governor, hearkened back to his own experiences as a boy in 1960, when his parents traveled as delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where John F. Kennedy was nominated.
“It was an exciting time for [my father] and our family, where a lot of new blood, enthusiasm and young people from all over the world coming together and trying to be this generation’s leaders,” Gov. Baldacci said. “Barack Obama, he’s tapped into the same network.”
John Baldacci attended two inaugurations before this one, but said they “aren’t going to compare” to the number of spectators from the United States and abroad who will be gathering in Washington and tuning in around the world to see Obama take the oath of office.
Baldacci frequently pointed to the poor economic conditions facing Mainers and all Americans as a heavy burden weighing on an otherwise high-spirited celebration, and pledged to push for federal help and state legislation “to create the kind of one-two punch that can jolt our economy.”
“Celebrations today, and tomorrow work begins anew,” he said.
Baldacci also said he has been glad to watch how Obama is trying to unite the country politically.
“He’s trying to draw upon the ‘better angels,’” the governor said, paraphrasing the famous words of President Abraham Lincoln. “We’re starting at a low point in terms of our relations around the world and in terms of our economy. But we’re starting it all together. It’s an exciting time in Maine — even though there’s been an awful lot of snow.”
Most Mainers still have their electricity, Baldacci told the crowd, and would put it to good use.
“They’re going to be able to watch the inauguration on TV,” he said.