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At 11 a.m., I realize I’m not going to make it. I stop running long enough to remove a glove, wipe a long stream of clear snot from my nose, and curse the 35-degree air. President Clinton will have to swear to defend the Constitution, again, without me.
Who knew how hard it would be to find a cab on Inauguration Day? Actually, I did, because my cabbie on Friday had told me that “no cabdrivers in their right mind would get involved in all those street closings and everything.” But I’d ignored the 63-year-old native Washingtonian. And now I’m stuck in the quiet desert of office buildings north of M Street NW. Yes, I’m missing my first inauguration.
I console myself by finding folks even worse off than I amfolks like Susan Mendoza, whose red Dodge Shadow has broken down near the corner of 15th and Massachusetts Avenue. “I think it’s something with the power-steering fluid,” she moans. Mendoza, 35, will miss the swearing-in because she is supposed to be babysitting. “I called the mechanic, but because of the inauguration nobody is there.”
As Schadenfreude begins to fill the empty space of my disappointment, I meet James Williams, a 32-year-old pizza deliverer who’s working 12 hours today. On a bicycle. At 11:30just as Clinton appears on the Capitol stepsWilliams is taking a break after his first job, a large pepperoni-and-sausage to 16th Street. “It’s not too bad now,” says Williams, sucking on a cigarette. “But when they all come down from [the inauguration], they’ll be cold and hungry. Then I’ll be busy as ever.”
Because it’s inaugural weekend, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a reporter, and as I cross New York Avenue on 13th Street, I find Tom Sherwood of WRC-TV. He’s been trying to find “inaugural periphery” storieslike who’s staying in Dick Morris’ infamous suite at the Jefferson Hotelbut he’s not having much luck. Suddenly, I feel downright good.
After all, I think, the swearing-in ceremony itself probably has the least direct impact on the city of any element of inaugural weekend. The swearing-in is simple, beautiful, and inevitable. Most of what occurred last weekend, by contrast, assaulted the District with kitsch disguised as history. It’s as though the events were planned by a cheap slut on a spending binge in the mall of American symbolism. If there ever was any argument about severing the federal enclave from the city, last weekend settled it.
No doubt stinging from the recent inquiries into their fund-raising habits, the Democrats did manage to throw an inauguration relatively free of corporate sponsorship. But what they lacked in sleaze they made up for in cheese. From the frozen-solid porta-potty waste to the almost talentless Presidential Inaugural Gala in Landover (yes, Landover), I searched for some value in the roughly $40 million spent on the inaugural festivities. I didn’t find much.
Mike Burke of Rosslyn is shimmying from foot to foot in the dance of the cold. It’s 17 degreesand below zero with wind chilloutside, and only barely warmer just inside the American Kitchen tent on the Mall. Burke, 33, is hawking, of all things, ice-cold lemonade. It’s $2 a pop, and I wonder aloud whether he could give it away. But with a startling reservoir of good inaugural will, he says he’s managed to sell 50 lemonades. “How long you been here?” I ask. Ten hours.
The tent is one of two “kitchens” on the Mall, whichalong with a pair of music tents, a giant tent with lots of high-tech toys, and two other entertainment venuesare supposed to evoke “An American Journey.” It’s more like a bad night on PBSfolk music and ethnic dances mingled with overwrought performances bringing Clarence Darrow and Paul Robeson to life again. The music tent headliners? Little Feat and Chaka Khan. I feel for you, indeed.
The entertainment sends many folks scrambling to the Technology Playground tentso many that long lines snake around it. People pass the time by talking about how cold they are. Americans hold reporters in a contempt usually reserved for politicians, and today I give the cold tourists one more reason to dislike my profession: a flash of my press pass opens a path through the Young Marines (like Boy Scouts, but with attitude) controlling foot traffic.
Inside, however, the pass reverses polarity and attracts public-relations folks out of thin air. Before I know it, I’m shoved to the head of a line of 12-year-olds waiting to play with a joystick that allows you to feel certain sensations. The computer screen shows a springmove the cursor onto the spring, and you feel the tension in the joystick. It’s remarkable, and I’m sure Louis Rosenberg, president of joystickmaking Immersion Corp., has become an extremely wealthy man. His American Journey seems ensured, although I have a hard time seeing the connection with Clinton’s second term.
Soon another flack is standing next to me to explain that the tech tent is “designed to bring that vision of a bridge to the 21st century to life.” The flack, a tall blonde named Kris Gil bert, has been uttering this pap all weekend, and she’s hoarse and sickly. “People can send a message to the president online,” she wheezes, sending a blast of hot, dry air into my eyes with each “p” word.
Outside, I amble across the painted wooden “Bridge to the 21st Century,” which has become a magnet for reporters. A question”What must we do to build a bridge to the 21st century?”is posted near the bridge, and hundreds are writing out answers on the construction paper provided. “Lead by example, not by words,” one response says. “Ban pigeon shoots,” urges another. “End homo’s,” argues a third. The media juggernaut finds meaning in this intellectual pornography. New Republic writer Ruth Shalit is here, copying responses down in her notebook. Copious TV crews are filming the answers. The BBC will mention the bridge in its radio report, which says the Mall is packed with “tourists and curious locals.”
Finally, of course, there’s the Washington Post, which will include the bridge in several of its many stories on the inaugural events. (The paper ran a stunning 204 articlesmost of them leaden beyond readabilitycontaining the word “inauguration” in the two-week period leading up to Monday.)
Hungry again, I suck down Georgia Brown’s fried green tomatoes and stumble (literally) onto Jessica Tyson and Matt Holland, two high-school kids sitting down in the Kitchen tent. “She paid fucking 5 dollars for that hot dog,” snorts Holland, pointing to a freezing bit of tubular meat on the ground. Holland, who has a nose ring and bleached hair, says he doesn’t much care about the inauguration: “We went to the Hirshhorn instead.”
The Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC), which is responsible for the herculean task of organizing this weekend, has taken care to create festivities open to the publicpart of that democratic impulse that keeps me, however reluctantly, voting for Democrats. But PIC has cheapened the inaugural brand, robbing it of its historical and political cachet by attaching the name to the frigid festival of mediocrity on the Mall. Few of these activities are even remotely affecting, but the Saturday-night fireworks seemed to hold a promise that the District would finally be invited to the party.
Because Clinton has suddenly found an interest in the District, PIC flacks are careful to underline one element of the pyrotechnicsthe gimmick of blasting them from 10 locations around the city. They quietly emphasize to reporters that several of the spots are in Wards 7 and 8, areas that usually reap the fewest inaugural rewards. Some residents think the effort a little miserly. “They can’t give us true and full citizenship, so they give us fireworks?” asks Phil Pannell, a community activist who lives in Congress Heights, where one of the displays is set to originate. “Besides, when I hear there’s going to be fireworks in Congress Heights, I shut the door and lock it. I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the fireworks and the bullets.”
Despite his warnings, two friends and I drive to Barry Farms, a struggling neighborhood in Congress Heights. We find a streetful of residents whooping and screaming and clapping with joy. “I didn’t know about it, but I heard a lot of boom-boom, and that’s when I came out here to see what was going on,” says Taffie Jackson, a 30-year-old Giant Foods employee. “But it is beautiful.”
“I can’t think of a better view than right here,” agrees Donna Sutton, 31, a neighbor. “We usually have to walk over there”she points to a spot near the Anacostia River”to see any of the fireworks. I think this is great. I wish they would always do this.” We turn our eyes skyward to enjoy the show. Up the street, even a city bus driver stops his rig so his passengers can watch. He flicks on his hazard lights, adding a little to the display.
In general, the best events of the weekend turn out to be the unofficial onesthe chance encounter with people surprised by fireworks or, in another case, the lesbian ball. Among PIC’s many press releases (including a glossy-bound, 128-page “Media Guide” to the weekend) is a list of “Non-Sanctioned Events.” Among these are Democratic parties and dances, mostly for party bigwigs. But there are also Even-Less-Sanctioned eventslike the lesbian ball (technically, the Women’s Inaugural Gala)parties that don’t appear on any official lists.
Planned by seven politically active lesbians who work in D.C., the first-ever lesbian gala is filling the 21st Street NW Galleria with some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. “Do you guys feel a little isolated?” asks one tall woman in a tight-fitting, floor-length gold gown.
“Welcome,” she says with a smile, pushing past with her date.
Tip-tapping my feet to a cover of lesbian torchbearer Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” I search for Sabrina Sojourner, D.C.’s newly elected “shadow” representative to the House. “How’s this different from other inaugural balls?” I ask after a friend finds her in the crowd.
“Starting with the fact that 98.8 percent of the people here are female? Well, aside from that, that’s really the only difference,” she says, and she’s right: The talk is political, the cheese and fruit are displayed on trays, and the schmoozing is standard Washington-issue. One of the organizers discreetly notes the event’s political power by naming the Cabinet secretary-designate in attendance (Rodney Slater, currently chief of the Federal Highway Administration, who is here with his wife). Inaugural vendors are busy selling Clinton buttons (the most popular, according to a vendor, is the button featuring Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton). And “there are lots of tuxes,” as New Yorker Carmen Vázquez notes with a giggle.
If the unofficial inaugural activities show at least a glimmer of the spirit of renewal that the inauguration is supposed to create, one of the most official eventsSunday’s Presidential Inaugural Gala at USAir Arenashows almost none of it. Herded to Landover in buses from chichi hotels around the city, the 12,000 spectators have each paid between $100 and $3,000 to see Babyface, Gloria Estefan, Bernadette Peters, and other pop stars sing a song or two apiece. Not every performance is terriblethe Bring in ‘Da Noise dancers are cool, and the choir of gospel singers from burned-out African-American churches are so energetic you can’t help enjoying them.
But if Clinton wants his Hollywood friends to sing and tell jokes for him, he should invite them to the White House. Televising the gala as an official inaugural activity is seedy. And having Clinton assume the stage at the end, easily slipping into the role of entertainer, is embarrassing. His populism has murdered his tastefulness, if he ever had any.
I thought most of the attendees would be annoying rich people, but most of the ones I meet turn out to be annoying Democratic Party activistsamong them a union vice president, a member of a presidential advisory committee, and a retired party fund-raiser. Others are more charming regular folks like Susan Ross, a stylish Chicago press secretary and mother of a DNC staffer. Ross flew in this morning, attended a luncheon where the first lady showed up, and then boarded the bus for Landover. “It seems corny, but I think all this is just lovely,” she beams.
Teresa Coffey, on the other hand, is in a deep funk. I meet the Texas legal researcher as we ride back to D.C. after the gala on a city bus (the cleanest city bus I’ve ever seen). Coffeywho’s here, she says, because she’s a friend of Clinton’s mother’s aunt’s daughtergets personal quickly, like many Southerners. “Do you feel that you really are a giving, accommodating person?” she asks. “I mean, you do the volunteer work, or this and that or whatever, but sometimes you just ask yourself, ‘Is this all there is?’”
Coffey’s question reverberates in my mind 24 hours later, as I stroll around the Armory on East Capitol Street, site of the D.C. Inaugural Ball, one of the 15 balls to be attended by the president. At first, I’m impressed that D.C. has its own ballmost states are lumped together in regional groupings. But I soon realize that most people here don’t live in the District. Nine thousand peoplemore than any other ballhave either paid $150 to get tickets or gotten in free; PIC has given away tickets to all manner of party hacks and administration officials.
Attending a ball was a childhood fantasy of mine. For years, I watched the news reports of the elegant affairs, where I assumed people were sipping champagne and discussing policy and waltzing to big band music, maybe an orchestra. Then the president would enter, and a circle would open for him and the first lady to dance. Everyone would look nice and smell nice and act nice.
My childhood dreams evaporate when Meat Loaf appears, shrieking out a superlong rendition of “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” among other songs. He yells, he gestures, he gyrates against his skimpily clad backup singer. It’s gross.
Visibly horrified, Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright beats a hasty retreat past the food tables. There she can buy nachos with orange “cheese” for $4, hot dogs wrapped in paper for the same price, or other overpriced items. If you want to eat or drink, you must pay a minimum of $20 for a sheet of beverage tickets.
This can’t be, I think. Where’s the pageantry? Where’s the style? Organizers have literally rolled out the red carpet, but it still feels as though we’re having a black-tie event in a giant garage. I feel a little sick to my stomach when I realize the president is actually going to be here.
The U.S. Marine Band enters before him, and 9,000 federal employees, Democrats, lawyers, lobbyists, D.C. Council staffers, and reporters crush to the front. Meat Loaf is wrapping up an ear-splitting two-hour set, but we shove our way right under the speakers for a better view. After 15 minutes,
I’m sweating and my ears hurt. I’m silently wishing Meat Loaf would take a break for some nachos with cheese, and maybe have a heart attack. But finally Al and Tipper Gore come onstage.
Mayor Marion Barry and his wife Cora Masters Barry make sure they are the first D.C. officials to join them, and after the first family of D.C. embraces the second family of the nation, they all dance awkwardly. (The mayor appears to have little rhythm.) In the crowd, we’re too close together to dance, so we huddle in a humid mass, eyes fixed on the principals. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton comes rushing out in a spaghetti-strap gown, turns the vice president around, and boogies hard with him. When the music stops, President Clinton himself appearsto uproarious cheersand offers his standard lines about helping the city. Hillary Clinton then urges all of us to help the District. (All of us? What about you?)
After about seven minutes, the president disappears, on his way to five other balls before getting home at almost 2 a.m. Thoroughly disillusioned, I pity him as he goes off to his appointed rounds.
The crowd then melts away, me with them. Thank God the weekend is over.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.