|The Obamas board AF1 at Joint Base Andrews|
Washington, DC - President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama departed for Johannesburg, South Africa early on Monday morning, flying aboard Air Force One to attend the national memorial service for Nelson Mandela that is schedule for Tuesday.
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush are accompanying the President and Mrs. Obama aboard AF1 for the more than 8,000-mile overnight flight to South Africa, as is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The memorial service will be in Johannesburg's 94,000-seat soccer stadium, where Mandela made his last public appearance. 91 Heads of State and Pope Francis as well as thousands of mourning citizens are expected to attend under intense security.
But back home at the White House, the holiday festivities will continue with the long-scheduled receptions and parties still taking place. On Monday night at 6:00 PM Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will attend the closed-press Congressional Holiday Ball at the White House, for Members from both chambers, according to Biden's official schedule.
There are White House receptions and parties scheduled--sometimes twice daily--through Dec. 21st, Mrs. Obama told Ladies Home Journal, with some 70,000 guests expected during the holiday season, she said at the decor preview. The White House sent invitations to guests in mid-November.
UPDATE, 1:00 PM: During today's press gaggle aboard AF1, Press Secretary Jay Carney said there had been no plans to reschedule White House holiday parties that were set to take place during the President and Mrs. Obama's trip to South Africa.
"My understanding is that in consultation with congressional leadership, the decision was for the congressional balls--or congressional parties to go forward...as well as the other events, including...at least one White House staff event without the President and First Lady," Carney said. "And so that’s going to happen." END update.
President Obama has repeatedly paid tribute to Mandela during the most recent holiday events, including at last Thursday evening's White House Hanukkah reception, which came just hours after Mandela's death at age 95 was announced by South African President Jacob Zuma.
Biden will memorialize Mandela later this week in Washington, his office announced today, speaking at the National Cathedral on Wednesday. This morning the Vice President visited the South African embassy in DC to sign the condolence book for Mandela.
The flight to South Africa...
The President and Mrs. Obama, both clad in black, boarded Air Force One at 8:15 AM on Monday morning after inclement weather forced the First Couple to motorcade to the base rather than fly from the White House aboard Marine One.
The flight takes close to seventeen hours; "the President and the First Lady will remain overnight aboard Air Force One," the White House said, and there will be a refueling stop in Senegal. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are also expected at the memorial service, traveling separately.
The White House has released no details about the President's return from South Africa, but he and Mrs. Obama could be back in the states as early as Wednesday.
|The Bidens at the South African embassy on Monday morning|
The Vice President and Dr. Biden visited the South African embassy at 10:21 AM on Monday morning to pay tribute to Mandela by signing the condolence book. Afterwards, the Bidens stood outside the embassy with South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, beside a statue of Mandela that is ringed by flowers, cards and candles.
Looking up at the statue, Biden said Mandela was "The most remarkable man I met in my whole career."
Tuesday's memorial in Johannesburg is the first of two major events for Mandela, with the anti-apartheid icon's funeral scheduled for next Sunday in Qunu, Mandela’s tribal hometown in the Eastern Cape province.
The trip to South Africa follows a busy holiday weekend for the President and Mrs. Obama. On Friday night, they attended the 91st annual National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. On Sunday afternoon, the Obamas hosted a reception for the Kennedy Center Honors recipients, and attended the gala tribute at the Kennedy Center.
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*Pool photo at top; embassy photo by @NedraPickler