Party Poopers

Why this inauguration is such a drag.


So where's the party? Every four years—and especially when a newly elected president comes to town—the capital indulges itself in various inaugural absurdities, from fancy balls to a big parade to limitless self-exaltation. The swearing in of the chief executive is a usually good-natured celebration of the peculiarities of American power: Its easy transferability, its ultimate disembodiedness in the law, its quadrennial illusion of patriotic bipartisanship. It is most of all an onanistic celebration of the city's culture of power.

But not this January. This inauguration week is a gray affair, lying heavily on a city that, in fear of disruption by crowds of protestors and their "anti-inauguration," has virtually locked itself in. Washington, in a bad mood, is only going through the motions of celebrating George W. Bush, like the indiscreetly grumbling host at a shotgun wedding.

Why? The easy answer is Florida. The long recount truncated the transition. There's been no time to do things in the city's normally excessive manner. No time to prepare a televised celebrity bash, for example, though those events are usually so intolerably stupid that no one is likely to miss one. No time even to engrave invitations to the slew of quickly planned balls that will be held; to the dismay of the city's Green Book crowd, people are actually faxing these invitations. The Holy Week of politics is a rushed affair this time around.

Of course, the more complicated answer is Florida, too. Because the election finally ended by court order, the city's frustrated Democratic establishment—and this is a very Democratic town—emerged from the process in a state of war. This is the first inauguration in living memory that is taking place in an atmosphere of presidential illegitimacy promoted by the losing party. Not only do self-pitying Democrats—in the press and academia as well as in political office—feel themselves aggrieved, but in their effort to wound the coming Bush administration, they are volleying extraordinary charges that threaten to wound everyone.

Inauguration Week is traditionally Washington's carnival, a period of excess (though without carnival's hierarchical inversion) in which the capital's major estates all join, especially the press. These press honeymoons for presidents are real. Usually, every outgoing president is a good guy, and every incoming one a fine fellow from whom excellent things are expected. Arriving presidents, for a while, can do no wrong. When Jimmy Carter chose to walk the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, rather than ride in his limousine, it was interpreted as a grand democratic gesture of solidarity with the people. When Ronald Reagan's entourage celebrated with tons of Beluga caviar, it was reported as a welcome return to elegance. When Bill Clinton came to town, people put on their Razorback hats.

Everything is perceived as so wonderful, so fresh, so pregnant with newness that in 1989, when George Bush the Elder was newly sworn in and happened to blow his nose while talking to reporters, it was celebrated as an act of naturalness, a welcome departure from the scripted public life of the Reagan years.

But the city this year is poisoned. Some Democratic partisans have been arguing that because Bush won only a minority of the popular vote, his nominees and his agenda must be more closely scrutinized. Indeed, according to such (mostly academic) voices, Bush may not even have a right to an agenda. This is new in our politics. When Bill Clinton attempted to remake the American health care system, for example, opponents did not point out that he was merely a 43 percent plurality president, and therefore had no right to propose such a sweeping plan. Rather, they criticized the program (and the secretive manner in which it was developed). In the future, perhaps, plurality presidents won't be able to assume their own legitimacy.

Much of the city's ill will has gathered around the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general. There are many legitimate questions to be raised about Ashcroft, but Democrats have not limited themselves to the merely legitimate. Never mind the baseless—yet remarkably easy—charge of racism in which some Democrats have indulged, they have assumed a breathtakingly easy stance of religious intolerance as well. Ashcroft's partisan critics have suggested that both his opposition to abortion, and the religious faith in which it is based, may disqualify him from holding the office. The Washington press has not found this novel development to be worth its comment.

But the most notable achievement of Bush's frustrated critics is the discourse they have managed to create around the pseudo-issue of revisiting slavery, a pointless discussion that has successfully distracted attention from Bush's actual approaching presidency. Two of Bush's cabinet nominees, Ashcroft and Interior designee Gale Norton, have in the past made comments about the Civil War; Ashcroft sounding like a pathetic Lost Cause partisan, Norton expressing dismay at the resulting growth of federal power. Neither had a good word to say about slavery. For that matter, Norton's point about the restructuring of the federal-state relationship addresses a matter with continuing historiographic vitality. But these days, if you address a Democrat about an issue of history, you risk being charged with some form of "insensitivity." At any rate, The Washington Post was moved, this inauguration week, to run old photographs of the area's antebellum slave dealers.

When Washington was still actually a slave city, Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into town for his first swearing in. His Democratic critics falsely charged that he'd even worn women's clothes to avoid being recognized. Bush's war, to be sure, is not so severe. The city's hotel rooms are festooned in his honor with Texas's yellow roses, and the hot-ticket event, the Texas State Society Ball at the Wardman Park, will feature a 2,000-pound bull. There is, in other words, some evidence of carnival. But this year, it's less a honeymoon than it is a truce. The war resumes after the ball.