Thinking about the upcoming primary and election put me in mind of the last presidential election. I went back to reread something I had written the day George W. was inaugurated, when I had gone into DC to wander around and take notes on what I saw. (Pity I didn’t have a digital camera back then.) It’s amazing to think of all that’s changed in the intervening years. I plan to make some more comments eventually that springboard off of my observations from back then, so I’m including the old essay below. I’m being just a little self-indulgent in doing so, since it’s only the last two paragraphs that I’m really going to be using; you can safely skip past all the descriptive stuff to those if you like.
George W. Bush got himself inaugurated last Saturday, at the end of an all-too-ordinary campaign and an all-too-unusual post-campaign struggle. Given the prospect of celebration happening alongside protest, the fundamental grinding of conflicting ideologies at the epicenter of world politics, I wanted to be there. It was just across the river, after all.
I had an opportunity to get an actual ticket to the Inauguration Ceremony itself, but passed that up. I was more interested in what would be going on at the periphery, among the protest and boundary lines. But I wasn’t going as a protester myself, either. As nervous as I am about Bush being President, I didn’t share either the visceral emotion or the perspective of those who, for example, were holding up signs that simply said “COUP.”
I went to watch, to see what I might see, and in wandering around the Mall area (in an extraordinarily wide arc, given the barriers) I saw a lot. Here are some highlights.
The Metro ride there, in a way, said it all best. The city was filled with partisans of both stripes and precious few people in between. The car I rode in was two-thirds filled with Bush supporters. The rest were bound for the protests. I was amazed at the degree to which they were readily identifiable by clothing and appearance.
The Bushies: Short hair, clean-cut, often with primary-color windbreakers. Walking advertisements for L.L. Bean. One guy was showing his “Luana Hills Golf Course” cap to his friends, talking about how cool it was to be golfing in Hawaii. A significant Bushie subset were the Texas Aristos: generally older, with guys in suits and ladies in fur, fur, and more fur. A smaller subset were the Russ’ Restaurant crowd: the Midwesterners in dowdier clothing, often carrying pro-Bush signs and wearing t-shirts with slogans.
The Antibushies: Long hair, scruffy, granola. Many woolen sweaters and sandals. Lots of pierced skin. Mostly college-age or in their 20’s. The main subset: African-American protestors, mostly middle-aged women. Nearly everyone with a sign of one kind or another.
I’m stereotyping here, but only a little. Both on the Metro and wandering around the Mall, I’d say the above descriptions, taken together, accounted for 80% of the crowd. One exception was two grey-haired women not far from me who ended up sitting across from each other. They could have been sisters, but one of them was clearly with some Bushies and the other had a “Hail to the Thief” t-shirt on. There was an awkward silence in that part of the train at that moment. The Bushie lady broke it.
“Is that about Jack Kennedy in 1960?” she asked.
“No, it’s for Bush—you know, the one who didn’t get the popular vote?” the other replied.
The Bushie lady nodded. “Well, maybe we can work on changing the system now. But what’s done is done.” She smiled in an awkward way, clearly trying to avoid a sense of tension. They looked at each other for a moment, each of them perhaps reaching for some common ground. But there was nothing. They probably led hauntingly parallel lives back home, but that day the gulf between them was immense, insurmountable. They both looked away.
Just outside the Metro, a throng of African-American and Latino teenagers were loudly peddling “W Stands for Winner” t-shirts.
Not far from there was a Bushie counter-protestor, of a sort. He was taking great pleasure in standing on the counter and periodically shouting, victoriously, “Al Who?”
A brief rant: It’s the attitude symbolized in that statement that irks me the most. Even though Bush was elected under dubious circumstances without the majority of the country behind him, many of his supporters are proceeding with a disturbing degree of smugness—indeed, a tangible sense of entitlement. Worse, “Al Who?” carries some weight of truth—the media has for the most part left Gore behind, and the coverage of the protests that I saw treated it more as an occasionally-disruptive curiosity than one of the vital poles of a nationwide debate.
I came across the second most profound juxtaposition of the day on Independence Avenue across from the Botanical Gardens. A bunch of protestors clustered there, and a charasmatic young guy with a goatee paced back and forth with a loudspeaker, reciting a litany of grievances against Bush, the Supreme Court, Republicans, and John Ashcroft. He was building to a climax as deftly as any pulpit-pounding preacher, with the words “I love my country! I love democracy! But today that democracy has been stolen from us! I cannot accept this man as my President! And I will not rest and I will not be silent!” At that exact moment, the loudspeakers from the Inauguration Ceremony a hundred yards away were blaring the National Anthem. Behind him, a small cluster of Bushies who must not have had tickets to the ceremony put their hands over their hearts and glared at loudspeaker guy. Right in front of him, half a dozen tourists captured every word and gesture with handheld video cameras.
The plaza in front of the Supreme Court was jam-packed with protesters, mostly African-Americans. A few nervous policemen tried to keep the sidewalk open for those just passing by. But the whole scene was eerily muffled by the presence of a dozen huge tourist buses idling loudly on the street. I’m sure it was just an unfortunate coincidence, but if I was into conspiracy theories, I’d theorize that the buses had deliberately been parked there in order to drown out the protests.
Here and elsewhere, I was mistaken for a reporter while standing to the side and scribbling observations into my notebook.
“Are you with the Washington Times?” one guy asked.
“No, I’m not a reporter.”
He looked skeptically at my notebook. Then he asked ominously, “Are you an agent?”
“Nope, not that either,” I replied, though I should have said “Agent of what?” For his part he must have concluded that I was a reporter, because he gave me his card and started talking about who he was with and the nature of their protest (“The Texas Racist”), filling in for me the questions I wasn’t asking him.
The periphery of the Mall was filled with innumerable anti-Bush slogans and logos. “Hail to the Thief” was the most common, though “Selection Not Election” was also very popular. The endless variations on the same core puns got old rather quickly. Consequently, when I passed by some guys in scarlet shirts that simply read “FUCK BUSH” in black letters, it was refreshing.
By the Capitol, a Texas Aristo lady in fur and heels was trying to cross a street crowded with protestors. After unsuccessfully trying to make headway through the throng, she took a step back and bellowed: “Would you PLEASE get out of my WAY!” Every fiber of her being quivered with annoyance.
Problems like that were rampant along the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue. I got down there well before the parade to look around, but after a short time things started getting very, very crowded. The cops had blocked off streets so that there were only certain access points to the route, plus the bleachers created a lot of bottlenecks on the sidewalk. Even before the parade attendees started streaming in en masse, it was sardine-crowded. The weather up until that point had been wet and miserable, but a full drizzle kicked in to make it even worse.
Which brings me to the most profound juxtaposition of the day: on the sidewalk, protestors, dripping, huddled, halfheartedly belting out their slogans in the face of the weather. Occasionally, cops jogging by in formation (wearing “soft” riot gear) to attend to a particular hotspot. But above it all, on the second and third and fourth floors of the office buildings and hotels, Bushies in suits stood watching through big bay windows in one of dozens of private viewing areas rented out for the occasion. Sipping wine. Peering bemusedly at the chaos below.
I had to clear out of there before the parade got started. Claustrophobia. But when I finally got free of the crowd, I was consumed with a desire to beat the system—to get into one of those tall buildings and find some un-rented window view of the parade. In short, I wanted to infiltrate.
Main entrances were out of the question – there were security guards at the doors and people taking tickets or invitations to whatever exclusive gathering was going on in the upper stories. But buildings have many entrances. I slipped into the parking garage of the Marriott and from there through an inconspicuous double door leading to a maintenance tunnel of some kind. From there I tried—oh, I tried—to find something that would get me up and into the building past the security checkpoints. And I almost succeeded. I found a service elevator that fit the bill perfectly, but the hotel had covered their bases—it was locked down. I also found a fire escape stairwell that wound all the way to the top, but each and every door leading out was locked. No exceptions.
By that time, back outside, it was raining even more and the parade still hadn’t started. I decided to call it a day, and headed home.
I don’t know what conclusions to draw from all these impressions. On the one hand, I don’t agree with the protestors about a lot. I’m not happy that Bush is President, but I don’t see it as a failure of democracy. A failure of supposedly-impartial judicial institutions, yes. A failure of Gore’s political campaign, sure. And Bush has certainly angered me since, nominating a depressingly partisan and old-school batch of Cabinet members in the face of his pledges for unity and non-divisiveness. But the system worked. Messily, lurchingly, sometimes unsatisfactorily, but it worked.
On the other hand, the protestors’ fundamental right to do what they were doing was challenged and belittled at every turn. The media coverage I saw didn’t reflect the extent or the passion or the sheer presence of the protests. And I heard and saw far too many Bushies, awash in their sense of entitlement, angry at the very presence of the protests, refusing to acknowledge their right to be there or the profound issues that they represent, however extremely.
For those who do object not only to Bush’s politics but to his very legitimacy, it’s going to be hard to stay present in the public eye for two or four years. But I think it’s important that they do. This inauguration was not ritual-as-usual. Its circumstances were unique in American history. I am eager—and very curious—to see how the American people will comment on it all the next time we all head for the polls.