AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Railroad tracks don’t necessarily run through the nice neighborhoods, and as Rosa Mendoza looked out the window on President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural train ride to the White House, she saw nuances of this country she immediately recognized.
On highway overpasses, along weedy side roads and on the stoops of boarded up houses, crowds gathered — not the massive ones Obama usually draws — but clusters of communities sending him on his way to Washington.
Along the route and in the cities where the train stopped on Saturday, Mendoza, a Las Vegas middle school teacher, saw what she called a “kaleidoscope of people.”
“I look out there and see the rich variety, all the races and classes,” she said. “It makes me feel like we’re really united as a country.
“It’s just a really good feeling,” she said.
Mendoza was an early Obama supporter who campaigned tirelessly for him during the hard-fought primary in Nevada. But she was not an automatic fan.
She explains that she was wooed, her word, by the Obama people early on in Nevada, where she has long been a community organizer. She listened. But it was not until she read his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” during a car ride to Seattle, that she committed.
Mendoza became part of the vast field operation that led Obama to a surprising
12-point victory in Nevada, the greatest margin for a Democratic presidential candidate in generations.
That Obama would return the favor by inviting her to ride as one of his 41 special guests on his inaugural train trip from Philadelphia to Washington only reaffirmed her belief that she had chosen well.
These are the deep ties that bond Obama supporters to the president-elect, seen in relationships in Nevada and across the country — supporters who believe him when he says his election, and shortly his presidency, isn’t about him. It’s about them.
The bond is formed on an intensely personal level, as Mendoza shares. She has met Obama, a few times now, in quick exchanges during the campaign, and again Saturday on the train. She asked him to sign her ticket for Tuesday’s inaugural parade route. He did.
“He makes you feel so warm, so comfortable,” she explained. It counts that he worked hard to get to where he is today. “He truly is the people’s president.”
Obama’s train trip was rich in symbolism of the past as he traced part of the route Abraham Lincoln took to his own inauguration in 1861.
The president-elect set out from Philadelphia, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — fitting, he said, not just to pay tribute to the patriots, but to “take up the work that they began.”
Obama spoke repeatedly Saturday of the difficult road ahead with the economy in trouble, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — “one that needs to be ended responsibly, one that needs to be waged wisely.”
The train stopped in Delaware, the first state to join the union, to pick up the vice president-elect. It was here in the sunny, midday cold that the crowd sang happy birthday to Obama’s wife, Michelle, just as the crowd did in Las Vegas a year ago.
Michelle Obama has a special draw among some women, who appreciate the balance the Harvard-educated lawyer and mother of two has achieved. “She’ll make a perfect first lady,” Mendoza said, who traveled with her daughter, Bianca, a 24-year-old first grade teacher in Clark County. “I’m so honored to have a woman with such class and such intellect in the White House.”
Mendoza grew up as so many do in the West, children of immigrants from Mexico who came to this country for a better life. She explained how, as a young girl inspired by a “Brady Bunch” episode, she complained to her parents about not having her own bedroom.
Her father, a postal worker, took her to his hometown in the Mexican state of Chihauhua and showed her the one-room adobe house where he was raised. He passed away four years ago. But if he could have seen her on the train with Obama, she said, “he would be so proud.”
As Obama’s train headed into Baltimore, the comparisons with Lincoln’s journey shifted. Lincoln had to sneak into that town under threat of assassination from secessionists.
Law enforcement guarded rooftops as they had elsewhere along the route, but Mendoza said she noticed them more in Baltimore.
How far this country has come — a black president-elect was greeted in the city with American flags and a giant crowd.
Mendoza had been listening to Obama’s speech all day, and said “as usual, it tugged at my heartstrings and at my soul.”
But in Baltimore, Obama gave a special shout out to Mendoza during the part of the speech when he says he will carry the voices of ordinary Americans with him to Washington.
“I will be thinking of middle school teachers like Rosa Mendoza, who is giving her students the chance to fulfill their God-given potential,” Obama said. “These are the stories that will drive me in the days ahead.”
Mendoza reacted with her own bit of poetry. “I felt like the clouds opened up and the gods poured bliss on me,” she said.
Skeptics will see the train trip to Washington as political theater at best, a historical rip-off at worst.
But for Mendoza and so many other supporters, it is the journey of a lifetime.
“It’s just amazing we’re part of history,” she said. “Long after I’m dead, my great-great-great grandchildren are going to know who we are. They’re going to remember us and tell the world this history happened. My great-great-great grandmother was there.”