Obama: Let’s remember King’s lesson

Hours before being sworn in as America’s first black president, Obama describes his Republican rival John McCain as an ‘American hero’, calls on nation to march together in spirit of Martin Luther King  

 

Barack Obama called Monday on a nation reeling from economic crisis and war to march together in the spirit of Martin Luther King, hours before being sworn in as America’s first black president. 

 

On the eve of Tuesday’s historic inauguration, Obama visited wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a refuge for troubled teenagers, and a school to help prepare care packages for troops overseas.

 

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“Tomorrow, we will come together as one people on the same mall where Dr King’s dream echoes still,” Obama said in a statement, paying tribute to the slain civil rights hero on the national holiday commemorating King’s birth.

 

“As we do, we recognize that here in America, our destinies are inextricably linked,” he said.

 

“We resolve that as we walk, we must walk together. And as we go forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let’s remember King’s lesson — that our separate dreams are really one.”

 

A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll said nearly seven in 10 African-Americans believe that with the election of Obama, King’s dream of racial equality has been fulfilled. 

Alongside Martin Luther King on wall in Houston, Texas (Photo: AP)

 

Obama also honored his vanquished Republican rival John McCain on Monday, describing the Arizona senator as an “American hero” while the Democrat prepared to assume the office that both men fought bitterly to attain. 

 

Obama and McCain clashed repeatedly on the campaign trail over foreign and domestic policy in sometimes heated exchanges that occasionally veered into the personal.

 

But Obama made clear that period had passed even as he predicted the two would not always get along in the future.

 

“John is not known to bite his tongue and if I’m screwing up, he’s going to let me know. And that’s how it should be,” Obama said, adding — to applause – that the presidency was just one branch of the US government.

 

He spent the evening before his inauguration at dinners honoring McCain, former Secretary of State Colin Powell – who broke with the Republican Party to endorse Obama – and Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

 

Obama opened his remarks at McCain’s dinner by calling the former Vietnam prisoner of war a hero who understood better than most what really matters in politics and calling for a new spirit of cooperation in Washington.

 

“There are few Americans who understand this need for common purpose and common effort better than John McCain,” he said. 

 

With a nod to their high-profile television debates before the November 4 election, Obama joked that McCain would have a chance to contradict the things being said about him.

 

“I’m here tonight to say a few words about an American hero who I have come to know very well and admire very much – Sen. John McCain,” Obama began. “And then, according to the rules agreed to by both parties, John will have approximately thirty seconds to make a rebuttal.”

 

The two men embraced when Obama called McCain to the front of the glittering ballroom and exited the stage together, with Obama placing his hand on McCain’s back.

 

Later, after Obama had gone, the Arizona senator said he was grateful to be honored and “to play a small role in the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, even if it isn’t the one I had in mind a few months ago.”

 

He echoed Obama’s comment that the two would not always agree but promised to support the new White House in addressing the nation’s challenges.

 

“I give my pledge to my former opponent, my new president, I will do the best I can to help you in the hard work ahead,” he said, according to a copy of the remarks.

 

Energy and excitement

 

Thousands of people – black, white, Asian and Latino – flocked to the National Mall where millions of Americans are expected to gather on Tuesday to bear witness to Obama’s moment of history.

 

Outside the White House, a carnival mood built, as people snapped pictures of the viewing stand where Obama and his family will watch the inaugural parade before moving inside to assume command of the Oval Office.

 

“I’m 41 and I’ve never experienced anything this big,” said Keith Smith, an African-American Washington native and city employee, as a smothering security operation kicked in ahead of an influx expected to reach millions of people.

 

“There is a whole lot of energy and excitement in the atmosphere – it takes our mind off the bad economy and job losses,” Smith said.

 

Aides said Obama’s call for a new spirit of national sacrifice will figure heavily in his inaugural address after he is sworn in around noon Tuesday, as he gets to grips with the nation’s longest recession since World War II.

Ready for Inauguration (Photo: AFP)

 

For the first presidential handover since the September 11 attacks of 2001, President George W. Bush’s White House said Defense Secretary Robert Gates would sit out the event at an undisclosed location as the “designated successor,” in case of a catastrophe.

 

Gates was a fitting choice: Bush chose him to be his defense secretary in November 2006, and Obama has decided to keep him on at the Pentagon to tackle a withdrawal from Iraq and a new offensive in Afghanistan.

 

With the inauguration hours away, Jill Biden, wife of Joseph Biden, appeared to let slip a piece of choice political gossip, suggesting her husband had been given a choice of being vice president or secretary of state.

 

Biden, who will be sworn in as vice president on Tuesday, quickly tried to hush up his wife during their joint appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, and his spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander quickly put out a statement.

 

“To be clear, president-elect Obama offered vice president-elect Biden one job only — to be his running mate and the vice president-elect was thrilled to accept the offer,” she said.

 

Obama aides meanwhile said all five crew members of a US Airways jet that safely ditched in New York’s Hudson River Thursday had been invited to the inauguration ceremony on Capitol Hill.

 

Rolling up his sleeves to help with renovations at Sasha Bruce House, an emergency shelter for homeless teenagers near Congress, Obama invoked King’s words to say: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

 

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On Sunday, Obama stood in the shadow of the memorial dedicated to Civil War president Abraham Lincoln to deliver a somber overview of the perils ahead, after a star-studded concert to kick off the inaugural party.

 

The site was where King in 1963, five years before his assassination, gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, when he expressed hope his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

 

AFP and Reuters contributed to this report

News agencies

Published:  01.20.09, 10:15 / Israel News
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