Oh Say, Why Can’t We See?

“Is that the president?”

Three-year-old Maddie was peering down the Mall at the big screen next to the Lincoln Memorial. I could not tell who it actually was, although it looked and sounded something like Maya Angelou. Or Celine Dion. Or Kenny Rogers.

“Yes, honey, that’s the president.” Or at least as close as she was going to get to seeing him.

We climbed back up the rise we were camped on, two-thirds of the way down the Reflecting Pool. The view was impressive. I could see the naked guy romping in the pond, three drunks sitting in a tree in front of us, and the tip of the Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial, down the way through a thicket of trees, was out of the question. There was a dim screen visible through the branches on the other side of the Reflecting Pool, but the sound was so bad, it was like watching television with the mute button on. I really couldn’t see the show, the talent, or the signs designating the year, but it was worth it just to ring in the new millennium with Will Smith.

Except we didn’t see Will Smith. Schnooks that we were, we had biked down to the Mall, arriving two hours before the show was scheduled to start. The entrance we had chosen—it doesn’t matter which one—was flanked by real-live mile-long lines on either side. When the show started, with Will Smith pretending to rap, my family was among the hundreds of thousands of stiffs outside the secured perimeter of the Mall. Whose idea was that? I’d happily soak up my share of a nail bomb rather than sit in that line—it never moved—for two hours. You want real terror? Ninety minutes into the standoff, Maddie looked up and said the five words that turned a bad decision into a nightmare: “I have to go potty.”

Me too, honey. After polite Washingtonians finally got the picture of how deeply they were being screwed, they began squeezing over the snow fences. MPD Chief Charles Ramsey finally convinced the National Park Service—may God bless you and keep you in this new year, Chief—that the jig was up, and they opened the gates. When President Clinton echoed Martin Luther King Jr. a couple of hours later by saying, “Let freedom ring,” the folks trapped in the cheap seats only wished it were so.

At about exactly this time, Arthur Schlesinger, Sid Caesar, and Sophia Loren were slurping beluga caviar, lobster, foie gras, rack of lamb, and polenta. While we were all getting the full pat-down to make sure that we hadn’t brought a drop of liquor—or plastic explosives—onto the Mall, all of the FOBs were taking their last tugs of champagne and then getting bused to VIP bleachers obscuring the Memorial—which left them sitting pretty and the rest of us looking at the backs of their heads. Through binoculars.

“We raised over $16 million,” presidential fundraiser Terry McAuliffe bragged to the Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts about his financing of the party.

Yeah, Terry, and you spent it on yourself. For the rest of the us, there was not a good seat on the Mall. All of it would have been fine if they hadn’t issued a sucker’s invite to plain old citizens, suggesting that all were welcome to a celebration “choreographed to celebrate the ennobling achievements of our country.” The faux populism—”This is America, here,” cackled Jack Nicholson as he made his way into the White House to pick up a goody bag with logo’d mufflers, hand-warmers, and seat cushions—made it all the more cynical.

The regular old folks who showed up to a feast of anomie and disregard should have received day fees as extras for populating the long shots on camera. By the time I actually took a seat on the muddy grass, I was rooting for a Y2K episode that might, at least, screw up the delicate social choreography of the moment.

Down on Constitution Avenue, the District threw its own little party. It was D.C. all the way: cheesified, ethnic in goofy ways, and pretty damn fun. No-name bands cranked away while complete strangers compared glittering 2000 glasses. But people drifted away as the evening progressed, drawn by the promise of a “Midnight Moment, a spectacular sound, fireworks, and light display.”

What “America’s Millennium Gala” actually celebrated was a triumph of the monied, the haves, the powerful, and those in the know. This being the age of convergence, the morphing of power, money, and fame was in full cry behind the ropes at the Mall. Bill Clinton is America’s celebrity in chief, and the historic moment was just an excuse for him to frolic in glitz. It was a televised private party that just happened to have half a million bystanders.

Sure, I’d feel differently if I had been inside the velvet rope, but I didn’t belong there, and neither did most of the rest of America. I’m sure all the VIPs dug the show. A very spacious, very comfortable perimeter was built around the Memorial—there was no risk of people dipping their furs in mud or getting beer splashed on them by the hoi polloi. When I think of clocking in the next year, century, millennium on the Mall, I don’t think of sparklers climbing up the Washington Monument. I think of Liz Taylor’s face burnished, lifted, and jammed with hors d’oeuvres.

While she was making an entrance at a secured portal near her seat, thousands of the unaccessed milled about, looking for someplace—anyplace—they could see something. The metaphor of a sanctified bunch enjoying themselves while the rest of us pressed our noses up against the glass was too true to the times to even ring comic.

I thought about pulling out of the crush around the Reflecting Pool, but where to go? The grounds of the Washington Monument were off limits. The people’s front yard, the most public of all places, was shut down, atomized, configured to create access and define privilege for the president and his pals. It was like being stuck in a four-hour motorcade.

In the moments before midnight, the night air was filled with poorly amplified blandishments from Clinton: “Celebrate the past,” “Never forget,” “Hateful intolerance.” He seemed content to usher in the new year by listening to his favorite music—his own voice—but a countdown would have been nice. We went further up the hill behind us for the moment of truth. It was quite a show. All 30 seconds of it. Must have looked swell from up on the dais. (I actually had a magnificent first few seconds of the new year. Our family of five danced in a circle, all wearing the same dizzy smiles and weird glasses—but we could have done that in our backyard.)

Better fireworks were scheduled for 1 a.m. By offering the bone of more fireworks later—Bono came on post-midnight as well—the Park Service was able to effect a “slow release” that allowed Clinton and his buddies to head back unimpeded to the White House for the rest of their “dusk-to-dawn affair.”

Maybe Clinton stepped out onto the balcony and smiled down at all the people coursing around the Ellipse. Maybe he had a nice post-Midnight Moment, thinking about all those swell Americans and the big America’s Millennium Gala he threw for them. If he had looked more closely, he might have noticed that all those folks were flipping him the bird. CP