It's Saturday, Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, and in a few hours a new president will be sworn in. They said this election was going to be about the Supreme Court, so that's where I decide to go first, seeking out demonstrators.
President W. It's a concept many folks are having trouble wrapping their minds around, and not just because they believe he stole the election. News articles before and after the inaugural are filled with quotes from Gore supporters who find Bush to be nearly unwatchable on TV, he's so embarrassingly oafish. At first it was The Smirk that was the most off-putting thing about young George--and his handlers, sensing a serious PR problem, ultimately coached him out of that. The problem, it turns out, was that The Smirk was George's way of hiding a greater deficiency, the same way such facial tics always get the likeable smart-alecky kid off the hook in class when he doesn't know the answer: without it, George just looks dumb.
Walking from Union Station, the change in the political landscape is immediate. The Washington Post would report the next day that D.C. subway ridership was only 463,000, compared to 811,000 for Clinton's first inaugural. Bush's people don't use public transportation, apparently. On the other hand, furs are everywhere. A woman next to me at an intersection wears a full-length light brown affair and is carrying a copy of Good Housekeeping. Call it the revenge of Hillary's cookie-bakers.
At the Supreme Court, whose five-justice majority made all this possible, I find a demonstration by Loud Citizen, the bunch that mobilized street actions for Bush during the recount, and which was notorious for gathering outside the Gore residence to demand that Gore "get out of Dick Cheney's house."
The day is raw, cold and drizzly, but Bush's supporters couldn't be happier. Neither is there much display of grace in victory--in fact, there is a defensiveness and forced righteousness in their demonstrations that belies their assertions of Bush's legitimacy. These folks are not just here to celebrate the demise of Clinton-Gore; they're here to dance on the Democrats' political grave. "Count the White House silverware," one sign recommends to George and Laura.
Soon a counter-demonstration shows up, the first of many such confrontations that day. Many carry signs I am going to see a lot of in the next few hours: "President select" and "Hail to the thief." This second group has come in mock reverence for Bush.
"We're here to recognize the rightful coronation of plutocratic power," says a young man from New York. "It's long overdue."
Reacting in ways I had not heard since, well, too long ago, the pro-Bush forces chant "get a job," "take a bath," and "you lost, get over it." The level of political discourse would generally go down from there.
Across town at Dupont Circle, out of earshot of the inauguration ceremonies, is a large lefty gathering. There are no furs here, and the Utne Reader has replaced Good Housekeeping. Someone is in a five-headed costume representing Bush's Supreme Court majority, a huge papier-mâché hand with upraised middle digit signaling his interpretation of the esteem in which the Court holds American voters. On stage, a duet sings a tune called "Fuzzy Numbers":
"We thought that folks would see your misdirection
You seemed so dumb we thought we could relax
How could we know it would be a close election
And you would steal the votes from Jews and Blacks?"
It's a crowd I figure is full of Nader voters, but if they are, most of them aren't copping to it. They voted for Gore, and of those who voted for Nader, only one is willing to second guess his decision. The young man's companion, on the other hand, also voted for Nader, but secretly hoped for a Bush win.
"Before the election, I was actually hoping Bush would win so it would bring people together," she says. "This way people will rise up and take part."
I ask her to predict how she would react if there were a change in the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade was overturned. She replies that it wouldn't change the way she felt about the results of the election.
Does that mean, I ask, that the organizational value of the election is more important to her than the real policy implications?
"If enough people speak out, they can't ignore us forever," she replies.
As I make my way around the crowd I meet Sandy Adair from Boone, who is active in the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. She fell in-between, she says: she voted for Gore but gave money to Nader.
From Dupont Circle I go to the parade route, at 7th and Pennsylvania, where we encounter the anti-abortion protesters from "Rock for Life," complete with graphic photos of aborted fetuses. I ask several young people about their views on violence against clinics, like what's condoned by Michael Bray and his followers, and all say they are pro-life in all matters. To them, this includes opposing the death penalty.
"There are a few psychos, but they do not represent the pro-life movement," says one young woman. "It's a shame that that's all the media covers."
Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition and a longtime activist with Randall Terry's Operation Rescue, is there with the Rock for Life folks, and also repudiates Bray's philosophy. But then he accuses abortion providers of condoning violence against what he and others call the "pre-born."
"Michael Bray I know well as a friend, but I couldn't disagree more with his position," Mahoney says. "But the point becomes, it is hypocritical for people to condemn violence at abortion clinics and not condemn violence in abortion clinics."
Later, as the inaugural parade approaches, a group of about 100 black-clad young anarchists plot strategy. Photographers who attempt to take their pictures are threatened with having their equipment broken. There is plenty of shouting and ugly language. Whenever a vehicle passes in the parade route there is a lot of booing and chanting, mostly of "Shame, shame, shame" and "Selected not elected."
Up and down the street from where I stand, Gore's people outnumber Bush's hands down--although the networks, I saw later, missed this. Gore's numbers were doomed to be undercounted even here.
Half an hour later, the situation becomes tense as the anarchists press forward toward the police barricade, and for a time it appears that they may rush the police line. The lead officer diffuses the situation by engaging the crowd in banter, and after another half an hour the wind has gone out of their sails. Most move up Pennsylvania Avenue, where a scuffle breaks out. One of the anarchists, without a hint of irony, whirls around looking for a camera and cries out, "Any press here?"
Finally the big limos go by. I can see Vice President Cheney in one, waving through a closed window. In another I see a hand flash Bush's signature, three-fingered "W" wave. The crowd is boisterous, and there are scuffles here and there, but the presence of riot police keeps a lid on. After waiting in the cold and drizzle for hours, the new government has whizzed by in a matter of moments, and the protesters begin to drift away.