January 30, 2001
Two cartoons in last week’s New Yorker summed up the disconnect attendant on George W. Bush’s inauguration. On the cover, Edward Sorel’s benign depiction of W. getting instructions from Cheney on which hand to raise for the oath, amid first worried, then beaming relatives and officials, might have seemed complaisant by the standards of, say, 1953. Inside, a cartoon by Charles Barsotti was more pointed, showing a contented yegg sitting in a bar next to his loot. Caption: “Oh, sure, it’s stolen, but now we have to get on with our lives.”
For nonsatirists, finding the right tone was a challenge. Desperate to end their cover story on John Ashcroft with ruffles and flourishes, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff shoehorned a mention of Bush the Elder’s World War II service into its final paragraph, setting up this pious thought: “Washington battles like Ashcroft’s may get nasty—but we’re all lucky to be allowed to have them.” Oh, cram it, guys—people get enough of that bilge from Tom Brokaw. Not that he shared his beloved “greatest generation” ‘s experience, natch; he just appreciates it more than we do. That’s how to be authentic in this age of recidivist earnestness—whose exponents, starting with George W. himself, are seldom deterred by incongruity.
Copping to it smacks of finky intellect, a quality suddenly in worse disrepute than usual, even if Laura Bush does think it’s a good idea for people to learn to read. While I don’t find her dislikable, acquiring literacy to savor the mind of Stephen Ambrose—one of the honorees at the incoming first lady’s salute to American authors on Friday—is a great argument for PlayStation 2. When her husband popped by a less-than-jammed Constitution Hall, he assured the audience, “Her love for books is real.” Of course, the bookshelves behind him were fake—but nobody wants to be a spoilsport.
No two TV commentators seemed able to agree about what W.’s inaugural address was driving at, which means it succeeded.
Even overlooking this one’s special, unsavory circumstances, the problem with inaugurals has always been that they require razzmatazz as well as pomp. While the pomp takes care of itself, no one has ever figured out what kind of razzmatazz is suitable, so goofy inanity wins by default. The sense of a culture in full gibberish mode kicked in with the opening sight of Thursday’s televised pre-inaugural concert—the Rockettes prancing at the Lincoln Memorial in bizarre black paramilitary togs. The Rockettes inhabit their own special wrinkle in time, which had apparently just been beamed its first Robert Palmer videos. Later, during Ricky Martin’s boffo finale, the firework detritus staining the uncooperatively overcast night sky looked like the bombing of Baghdad. Talk about wrinkles in time.
Saturday’s rain turned the Capitol dais into a sea of dignitaries in transparent plastic ponchos, as if they were toys so new that W. hadn’t unwrapped them. Needless to say, the opposite was closer to the truth: actually seeing all those gray faces of yesteryear assembling to take power again was even more depressing than I’d expected. That morning, the Moonie-owned Washington Times had reported that blubber-prone Poppy and his sentimental son had agreed to avoid eye contact during the ceremony, fearing that otherwise they might be “overcome by the enormity of the moment.” For a mad second, I’d wondered if the Times writer meant “enormity” in the dictionary sense: “great wickedness.”
No two TV commentators seemed able to agree about what W.’s inaugural address was driving at, which means it succeeded. There’s a wonderful story about Eisenhower soothing his press secretary’s fears before a difficult press conference: “Don’t worry, Jim,” he said. “I’ll just go out there and confuse them.” For a guy whose relationship to English has been his only real struggle with adversity—his motto: “Let the word go fifth”—W. has proven adept at defining his embryonic administration via cant terms that render his ominous policies irrelevant: his own “heart,” John Ashcroft’s “integrity.” Just how immune to criticism the latter quality makes the attorney general-designate depends on your point of view; after all, Jefferson Davis was a paragon of integrity.
Violating feel-good protocol, Al Gore was often caught by the cameras looking overcome by the enormity of the moment. But that was damn near the only reminder that we all had lots to feel crummy about. That neither W. nor his supporters would have been caught dead alluding to his status as the winner-by-juridical-fiat of a disputed election shouldn’t have surprised anybody—unless you count him blurting, “I’m surprised to be your president” at the Florida ball. What was appalling was the way the networks—hell-bent on staying in full celebratory mode—refused to rain on his charade. Not like I was hoping for Daumier, but we deserved better than Ziegfeld. Just turn those chads into confetti and, presto: a great day for America.
It’s one thing to suggest that inaugurals ought to be a time to set arguments aside, another to impose that contention on events that brim with evidence to the contrary. By and large, the networks did this by ignoring the one group living up to W.’s call to be “citizens, not spectators,” namely the protesters—no mean feat if you credit one CNN reporter’s idle on-air remark that anti-Bush signs outnumbered pro-Bush ones from his vantage point on the parade route. As if realizing his gaffe, he quickly started chattering about the family-heirloom cuff links that Poppy had given W. to wear on his big day—the very same human-interest factoid that Fineman and Isikoff had used to prime their Newsweek story’s coda.
The one incident that forced TV to acknowledge the protests’ existence was the holdup when the Secret Service stopped W.’s limo short of one bunch of demonstrators, then hustled him past them with a cordon of agents jogging alongside the car. Briefly, we saw what was actually happening on Pennsylvania Avenue—that part of it, anyway: several dozen placard-waving protesters hemmed in by four ranks of cops in riot gear. After answering Peter Jennings’s query as to what issues they were raising with a dismissive “Pretty much the kitchen sink,” ABC’s Terry Moran accounted for their visibility by explaining that the Bush people had been “outorganized [!] by what may be a fringe element.” (Honest: “a fringe element.”) Then Moran called them “a grab bag of angry people who may not be spoiling the parade”—”spoiling”: now we’re getting to the point—”but are certainly impacting it.” Jennings picked up the ball: “They may be causing resentment among the people at home.”
As disgraceful as this performance was, CNN wasn’t much better, first treating the motorcade’s pause as a convenient interlude in which to chat about W.’s foreign policy and then reporting on Bush supporters’ reaction to the demonstrators. Hours later, Kate Snow did a decent job of summarizing the protests, but even she didn’t let any of the troublemakers speak for themselves. In fact, I didn’t see a single interview with one on any network all day—or hear so much as a sound bite of whatever they were chanting, or get more than glimpses of what was written on their signs. During the live coverage, when W. and Laura Bush finally got out to walk the last block of the route, it was clear that they’d been obliged to wait until they reached the safe stretch of Bush supporters near the reviewing stand. In CNN’s evening wrap-ups, the same upbeat clip appeared with nary a reference to its awkward context.
Meanwhile, our newest ex-president was taking his sweet time saying goodbye—even as he relinquished the spotlight not to W. but to Hillary, whose declarations of her new autonomy ranged from a black leather coat so assertive it might as well have had the Jolly Roger painted on its back to a Kennedy Airport thank-you so Noo Yawkishly strident I wished she’d had the balls to say, “It’s great to be home.” Yet the sight of Clinton skidding out of office in a final spray of snake oil and averted indictments made even me feel sentimental, just because it was so utterly characteristic of our Styrofoam rock in a raging sea. I didn’t fully register just how strange a chapter we’re closing until I spotted a beaming giantess in a floppy hat, clutching a small American flag, among the well-wishers at his departure. It was Janet Reno—and what a sheerly peculiar figure she is to have occupied the national stage these past eight years. I can’t explain why I found that touching; I wasn’t even drunk yet.
But my pal Dolores and I were both good and soused by the time Larry King Live came on, which may have contributed to my impression that all but W.’s most devoted supporters were finding the affectation of euphoria hard to sustain. For one thing, it had to have started sinking in on permanent Washington, whose gasbag epitomes Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were Larry’s guests that night—along with Time-Life’s timeless, lifeless Hugh Sidey, who was giving blowjobs in the Oval Office decades before Monica Lewinsky was born—what they’re in for. Sure, Republicans wear fur and serve lobster, but they’re still stuck for the next four years with a teetotaler and a librarian. All that fawning over the newcomers’ Texas yee-hah reflects a desperate hope that barbecue and cowboy boots will somehow pick up the slack.
Bradlee has believed he’s Jason Robards ever since Robards played him, and he crustily deprecated the protests: “Only seven arrests,” he said, with man-of-the-world scorn. “I wasn’t impressed.” Jeez, if only a few demonstrators had gotten their skulls cracked, or maybe tossed grenades. What a downer not to have impressed Ben Bradlee.