The Omega Man Inaugural

Capitol Letters


Subject: The Omega Man Inaugural
Date: January 20, 2001
From: mwlynch@reason.com

Where are all the people? I've spent the last day and a half bottom feeding at inaugural events and, except for a bottleneck on the Metro after the big Black Tie and Cowboy Boots Ball last night, there just hasn't been much of a crowd.

At the kick-off party, there was even a two-to-one ratio of Porta-Potties to attendees for a while, which made some sense, given the horrible, inclement weather. But even when the festivities head indoors, the people don't seem to be showing up. At the Capitol Hill Club last night, there was maybe half a room of folks milling around at the New Economy Republicans party.

Which isn't to say that there are no signs of a regime change. More than one woman was living up to former Texas Gov. Ann Richard's description of what D.C. can expect from Texas women: big hair, big jewelry, and big cleavage. One memorable bottle-blond had on a furry faux leopard skin cowboy hat, skin-tight jeans, and a tasseled leather jacket; she boasted Texas-sized cleavage as well. She was subdued when standing next to her partner, who was clad in leather pants, a silk zebra patterned shirt, and a matching cowboy hat.

But the party was sparsely attended, with one wag noting that the New Economy Republicans of Capitol Hill looked a lot like the Old Economy Republicans. They were dressed in dark suits, a bit chunky, with a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other, which they put down only long enough to shake the hands of lobbyists.

* * *

The New Economy Party was hardly an A-list affair so the small crowd still didn't get me to thinking too much. But Laura Bush's book bash, er, "salute to America authors" at Constitution Hall certainly did. I could barely get a cab down there in the morning and once arrived, I was denied entrance, since I had neither a press pass nor a ticket. Yet after a visit to the Will Call window, a bit of small talk with the two ladies working the booth, and an assurance that I wasn't a protester (my earrings made the ladies suspicious), I was on the inside with a ticket. The room—although warm and dry—was half-empty.

The event itself was quite good. While her husband's never been accused of spending too much time with his nose in a book, Laura is styling herself as the school-marm-in-chief. She was a big literacy booster in Texas and we can expect her to be at the helm Dubya's "reading is the new civil right," kick. Mildly annoying, yes, but Laura Bush's insistence that people read promises to grate less than Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" shtick and Hillary Clinton's attempt to remake 14 percent of the country's economy into her personal HMO. For that matter, Mrs. Bush's campaign is even less annoying than Lady Bird Johnson's constant nattering about wildflowers on Interstates.

In front of a mural of an august library, our first-lady-in-waiting gave us a glimpse of what she considers good reading. She offered a diverse selection, with popular mother-daughter suspense novelists Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, Texas novelist Stephen Harrigan, best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose, and critic, novelist and jazz aficionado Stanley Crouch.

Ambrose read first, choosing a selection about Thomas Jefferson, who was the first president of the 19th century just as George W. is the first of the 21st century. His reading was interesting, if less than coherent, partly because it was a selection from a long work, partly because of Ambrose's thought. But the message came through, nonetheless: Thomas Jefferson, who saw the possibility of both air travel and automobile travel more than a century before any one else, was a visionary. Jefferson believed in "An empire of liberty" on the North American continent, the empire we in fact enjoy today. Nobody objected to the oxymoron at the center of Ambrose's thought, but his implication came though loud and clear: Bush is a visionary as well.

The Higgins-Clark duo did less of a reading than offer a mother-daughter glimpse of the writing life. Laura, it seems, likes their work because it often centers on an ordinary people who get thrust into menacing situations. "I can identify with that," said Laura to laughs.

No Bush inaugural event would be complete without a strong diversity component. Stanley Crouch and Stephen Harrigan were happy to provide it. Crouch prefaced his reading by noting how America's is somehow always able to overcome its past, as we were in Constitution Hall, the very stage denied to opera singer Marian Anderson in 1939. Thankfully, Crouch didn't try to belt out a solo. Instead, he launched into a riveting excerpt from his novel Don't the Moon Look Awesome. The piece he read was set in a Baptist Church, where a preacher, upon seeing that one of his congregants has expired in the pews, uses the occasion to preach about death. The woman is revived by the time he's finished. Crouch's story is set around an interracial couple who are getting grief about their transgressive affair, which may well be a metaphor for Dubya's so far awkward reaching out to minorities.

Harrigan provided the Texas flavor, but did so in an interesting way. He read a passage from his book that examines the Alamo from the perspective of the Mexican troops, who, in his reading, were unexpectedly caught in a horrible blizzard on their way North. Celebrating the heroics of the Mexican Alamo soldiers is hardly a Texan pastime.

* * *

"Where my independent women at?" declared a singer from the pop group Destiny's Child, a slender woman whose ample cleavage formed a comma between the 0 and 1 on her cut up jersey as she bounced across the stage. It was afternoon and I had made it to the inaugural "Celebration of Youth" at the MCI center. I had neither a press pass nor a ticket, but again it didn't much matter as there so few people. A guy handed me a free ticket at the door and I was soon inside soaking up the sights and sounds.

"I'm excited for all of the people who did come out, but I don't know why they didn't publicize it better, get a radio sponsor, or something," opined 26-year old Wendy Reinhardt, who was stranded on the upper deck, which the ushers had cleared due to sparse attendance, until her friend showed up to meet her. Wendy's a Bush supporter, one of only two in the non-profit international food information organization where she works. "I'm a young spirited person," said Wendy. "I wanted to come out and support the inaugural events."

The event was a combination of pop acts and motivational speakers, including an Olympic swimmer (who'd made a comeback after seven years out of the pool), the HUD secretary designee (who came to America already a teenager and couldn't even speak English), and Colin Powell and his 12-year-old friend Portia, who wants to be a judge, a writer, and maybe a Secretary of State when she grows up.

The cheers and handwaving made clear America's youth, at least the few on hand, enjoyed the show. But I wanted to find out if they were going to give our President-elect, and his party, credit for bringing on the hip. I ran into a group of young women from Alexandria, Virginia, who'd won tickets from their church. They were as worked up about the acts—Destiny's Child and 98 Degrees were their favorites—as they were about the incoming president. "I don't like him," said 16-year old Leah Mason. "He's against a woman's right to choose." This animated the three other young ladies, one of whom chimed in, "He has no right to say whether a woman can have an abortion."

Bush's emphasis on change rubbed Leah the wrong way as well. "There's nothing that needs to be changed," she said, as we stood in front of the cotton candy stand. "It's the best it's ever been and we don't need to go back."

Jori Patton and Jesselyn Allen were in from the Bayou City—Houston, Texas. "Best Friends," a program for adolescent girls that, among other things, teaches abstinence, brought the 15 year-olds to D.C. for the event, and they were having a good time. As for politics, well, they were conflicted. "I'm voting for whoever my parents voted for," said Jesselyn. "And one is for Bush and the other is for Gore. That makes me Bush, since I am from Texas."

Bush took the stage with Powell and Portia and delivered, in a style that's growing on me, a short and coherent speech. His message was a blend of Army recruitment palaver and the Golden Rule: You can be all you can be, if you just want to be it, and, for good measure, be a good citizen, which means helping your neighbor.

I'm not sure whether the kids really liked the Bush's speech, but it was a winner with the adults. "It was right on the spot for young people," Roberto Angulo, a staunch Republican from Miami told me as I headed for the door. "Be responsible in your life, help your neighbor, and we'll have a better world."