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J. Carter Wood © 2001

 

 
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Among the most intriguing recent disappearing acts must be that of the partisan anger generated during the post-election ballot-counting debacle. The passions that were so visibly boiling over on the Florida peninsula and in Washington -- from party hacks and hired guns trading accusations of criminal activity to the "bourgeois riot" that closed down Miami-Dade vote counting -- appear to have broken like a wave, leaving behind only the usual driftwood and sea scum of American political life. However, the surface tranquility at more rarefied political levels may conceal continuing rank-and-file resentment within the Democratic Party and among left-progressive activists. Such anger was palpable in the protests that greeted the new president at his inauguration, marking the first major inaugural protests since the era of Richard Nixon.

It may be useful to recall how Bush reached his seat in the presidential mansion. The right-wing takeover of the executive branch was a thing of impressive power, if lacking in beauty and subtlety. From Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to the conservative Reagan/Bush appointees on the Supreme Court, the Republican establishment outmaneuvered the Gore campaign in its increasingly desperate re-counting efforts. While the Floridian farce was not pretty, I continue to think that the thirty-six day struggle was the most instructive period of the presidential campaign, provided a raft of electoral reform issues around which progressives can organize, and generated a cloud of illegitimacy that may -- with some lucky political winds -- continue to hang over the Bush administration. The inarticulacy of the American electoral system in expressing the "voice of the people" matches that of the "victor" it has chosen. But while the system received a much-needed airing, the political classes may easily forget the lessons of the disputed election. Long before Bush moved into the White House -- damaged legitimacy in hand -- the fervor for applying some much needed maintenance to the creaking electoral machine subsided, edged out by calls for "bipartisanship," "healing," "unity" and "moving on." Outside of the Beltway, the commoners have been compelled to worry about something other than mere democracy, as Clinton appears to have packed up the bullish economy with him as he and his wife flew off to New York.

I heard of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision handing the presidency to Bush on a Tuesday night while at the same local bar at which I had watched much of the election night coverage thirty-six days before. It was a remarkable legal utterance that discarded not only reason but also nearly a decade’s worth of conservative states-rights ideology. It was also marvelously constructed in terms of its literary references, most immediately those of Machiavelli, Orwell and Heller. For instance, its transparently Catch-22 logic was breathtaking in its audacity. The justices had intervened to stop the recounting begun on the preceding Friday, 8 December, and four crucial days passed. Then, when Tuesday arrived, they argued that even if a universal standard for creating a vote could be established, there wouldn’t be enough time to count ballots by the following day’s arbitrarily-drawn deadline. The court had successfully run out the clock and assured a Bush victory even though some sixty thousand potentially legal votes remained uncounted. Not stopping with a merely technical verdict and continuing their twisted logic, the narrow conservative majority also critiqued the failure of the Florida court clearly to define what a constituted a "legitimate" vote. Had the Florida judges established a strict standard of what counted as a vote, however, the Bush team would have challenged them for unlawfully "rewriting" the law. The same conservative justices who declared that the "intent of the voter" standard of the state court was too vague would undoubtedly have upheld such a challenge. When we consider the forces arrayed against him, it is clear that Gore was doomed from the start of the re-count. One of Florida’s many lessons may be to emphasize the importance of controlling state governments and the judiciary to the American political landscape, a dominance that the Republicans have steadily been gaining.

Despite the rancor and contention

That the Restoration presidency of George II would not follow the same centrist script became rapidly apparent as he named his cabinet. Bush may have picked a somewhat ethnically diverse cabinet that, in Clinton’s words about his own choices, "looks like America", but appears to think more like America’s crazy right-wing uncle. A few moderates were placed in minor posts, while those departments concerned with justice, the environment and social services were handed to representatives of the far right. The real face of "compassionate conservatism" may be that of the execrable extremist John Ashcroft, whom as I write is likely to be confirmed as Attorney General. Ashcroft’s determined dislike of desegregation, opposition to abortion -- even in cases of rape or incest --and support of reactionary institutions such as Bob Jones University and the Southern Partisan magazine, place him far beyond the political horizon of anything recognizably "centrist". The failure of the Democratic bloc in the Senate to hold together in opposition to a representative of some of the most frightening forces in contemporary America is a dispiriting retreat. From the new administration we can also expect such "moderate" efforts as a rollback of environmental regulation, a lackadaisical enforcement of laws designed to protect civil rights and access to women’s clinics, a further breaching of the wall of separation between church and state, and assaults on affirmative action, welfare and the rights of the imprisoned. Not to mention foreign policy, where the unilateralist tendencies of the Clinton era will be amplified in combination with the absurd and unworkable revival of Reagan’s "Star Wars" missile defense system. The sense of restorationism is only enhanced by the return of figures such as Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and James A. Baker III to the forefront of the Republican Party over the last few months.

Thus, it was with some reluctance that I decided to head south into Washington for the quadrennial ceremony by which the new representative of the popular will (or not, as the case may be) was anointed leader. I had attended both of Clinton’s inaugurations. The first I recall through the lens of a hopeful and festive spirit (fueled by what I mistakenly saw as the nail in the coffin of the Reagan/Bush years) the second with an already substantial sense of betrayal. But on Inauguration Day 2001, the grey and cold morning reflected my mood as I drove southward. Boarding the Metro subway in suburban Maryland, the first sign I saw was held by a Bush supporter. It read, "Thank God." Not being able to take comfort in such theistic gratitude, I watched as the train slid from the prosperous outer suburbs through the more downtrodden inner ones, and noted that the racial mix and political tenor of the riders shifted leftward. Supporters of either side cradled their signs and eyed each other with expressions ranging from good-natured rivalry to suppressed fury. Also present in large numbers were many families whose political affiliations were indecipherable. I heard many parents explaining that the point of this day was for the nation to "come together" and support the new president. It was good to see that telling fairy tales is not an extinct parental tradition.

At Union Station, however, it became apparent that the partisans in the crowd had different ideas about the meaning of the day. Clumps of anti-Bush demonstrators were unfurling their banners, and tentatively beginning the chants that would become louder throughout the day. I headed toward the Capitol, expecting, as on the two previous inaugurations, to find a place to stand behind the ticketed areas on the Mall from which to watch the ceremonies. I had an hour and a half in order to walk the distance that usually takes about fifteen minutes.

The police had taken extraordinary precautions. During both of Clinton’s inaugurals, the tenor of the police forces had one of good-natured vigilance. Their work had largely been concerned with directing ticket-holders to their designated corrals and keeping the non-ticketed plebs out of unauthorized areas. Today, however, the mood was decidedly different. The area around the Capitol was filled with police looking grim and somewhat anxious. With the Battle in Seattle perhaps as much on their mind as the Tussle in Tallahassee, they had taken unprecedented steps: closing two subway stations near the swearing-in and setting up checkpoints through which attendees had to pass in order to gain access to the area around Pennsylvania Avenue. These checkpoints were ostensibly aimed at preventing protestors from bringing in certain forbidden items, since the praetorian guard of the most powerful country on Earth had decided that stilts and giant puppets would be a threat to the security of the political elite. Fences blocking access and channeling the crowd were everywhere, preventing access to the Mall. The limitations on movement at the Bush ceremony contrasted dramatically with previous inaugurations, in which, while the Capitol and parade route themselves had been heavily secured, the Mall and area around Pennsylvania Avenue had been areas of free movement. Considering that the better-armed right wing commits the preponderance of deadly political violence in this country, this concern seems rather odd. Reaching the Mall was therefore proving to be extremely difficult. Even the security people I queried didn’t seem to know where non-ticketed people could enter.

Eventually, I had taken a circuitous path, skirting fenced-off areas, down to Seventh Street, where I found a two-block line that I was told was a "public entry point." I stood in line with a middle-aged African-American woman I had met while trying to enter the parade grounds. She -- a military-intelligence analyst as it turned out -- had been likewise frustrated by the security arrangements. Having attended all of the presidential inaugurals since Reagan’s, she merely wanted to get to the Mall to see the speech. The line itself was a surreal experience. Republicans clad in mainstream suburban garb mingled with protesters displaying the requisite Seattle-chic, some dressed intifada-style with bandanas over their faces. Protestors’ signs declaring "Hail to the Thief" and "Illegitimable" abutted Republican "Sore-Loserman" slogans and red, white and blue "Bush-Cheney" placards. Chants echoed up and down the street. One group ambiguously shouted "All hail Bush!" leaving me unclear whether they were in support or opposition. It was a bizarre scene. The partisan political competed with the politically ambivalent but decidedly insane as various crazies ranted incoherently and a man walked along the line with a massive cross over his shoulder while a companion shouting warnings of an impending Biblical apocalypse.

Despite the cushion of time I’d derived by arriving early, Bush’s speech began while my companion and I were still waiting in line and nearing the security checkpoint. I turned up the volume on my radio as the irritatingly chirpy National Public Radio commentary shifted to the voice of Bush’s lead man on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, administering the oath of office. As we finally went through the security point, Bush’s speech began.

"The peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country. With a simple oath, we affirm old traditions and make new beginnings."

A phalanx of Secret Service agents stood at a table, one of them barking through a loudspeaker that we were to stay single-file as we went past and to have any bags unzipped and ready for "inspection." Concurrently, a man on the corner was shouting that the checkpoint violated his constitutional rights. People with wires emerging from their collars eyed the crowd intently, but after a surprisingly cursory glance into my satchel, I was waved through the security detail.

"We have a place, all of us, in a long story -- a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer."

Once onto Pennsylvania Ave, we strode back down several blocks to get as close to the Capitol as possible. As we walked, I listened to the lackluster speech that was both leaden with banalities and inflated with scriptural flourishes. Predictably, the establishment media later gushed at its "inspiring" and "unifying" themes.

"America, at its best, is compassionate."
"America, at its best, is also courageous."

"I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image."

"And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side."

In contrast to the inanities buzzing in my ear, I noted the way that the protestors gave the parade route a carnival air, and multicolored signs and banners were common. People dressed as court jesters -- critiquing the Supreme Court’s decision—circulated along the parade route. Signs mocked Bush’s policy initiatives and speech mannerisms. Placards depicted Ashcroft as a pig. Messages decrying the theft of the election were everywhere: "The people have spoken: all five of them," read one

It was relatively easy to distinguish people’s partisan affiliations. Republican women, for example, seem to be automatically issued fur coats along with their party membership cards. Their attempted grandeur, however, was somewhat dimmed by the rain, making them appear like angry wet cats as they were taunted by animal rights activists in the crowd. But, Republicans did not respond to the protests quietly, and they showed little reluctance to fight fiery rhetoric with some flames of their own. The most visible organized Bush support came from the "National Patriotic Rally" sponsored by Loud Citizen, which had organized to support Bush during the re-count imbroglio. True to their name, they generated a lot of volume, but relatively little creativity. (It might be too much to ask that they would found a companion organization called, say, "Clever Citizen.")

"America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness."

Bush’s mantra of "compassionate" conservatism (which on its own makes the salient point that un-modified conservatism is not compassionate) was very little in evidence: in their confrontations with demonstrators, the right exhibited its usual brand of thinly veiled thuggery. One Bush supporter standing near me taunted even the most-subtle passing protestors with the compassionate epithet "asshole" and -- bewilderingly -- kept shouting, "There’s a new sheriff in town!" Perhaps he was confused about the particular office Bush was being inaugurated into. Such was the standard for the main Republican responses I saw and heard, which tended toward vulgar gloating -- and outright vulgarity -- from the baseball-capped fraternity ranks that appear to make up the youth wing of the GOP, who also appeared on the brink of doing interpersonal violence at several points along the parade route.

My temporary companion departed once the speech ended, and I walked up Pennsylvania Avenue, taking in more of the scene. Protestors were visible all along the route. The largest contingent was gathered in Freedom Plaza, approximately halfway between the Capitol and the Treasury building. A few days before, I had heard the chief of the DC police on the radio stating that his officers wouldn’t be out in riot gear; however, that policy appears to have shifted, if it had ever been genuine. Wherever substantial numbers of anti-Bush demonstrators were concentrated, the armored, helmeted and baton-wielding riot cops were present. They stood silently with a yard between them, calmly holding their clubs and glaring at the crowd, who, despite occasionally calling out "fascist!" made few provoking gestures. Along with the show of force, the main tactic of the security forces appears to have been an old one: divide and conquer. Spectators and demonstrators were herded into various enclosed sections separated by fences, cops and federal agents. Pedestrian bottlenecks were very common, sometimes making it nearly impossible to make headway in either direction for long stretches of time. Certain streets designated as potential emergency entry-exit points were guarded by secret service agents with large bags -- that I presume contained some heavy firepower -- under their overcoats. SUVs filled with more agents, waited at several corners.

Overall, it seemed to me that the protestors outnumbered the vocal Bush supporters by a significant amount. This point appears to have been either missed or willfully ignored by most of the mainstream media who, beyond noting the presence of the demonstrators, focused instead on cheerful, celebratory "coverage" of the event and providing details on the minutiae of inaugural history. Much like the Democratic leadership, among whom the anger of the Florida days has visibly disappeared, the media too seems to want to "move on." It is true that those who, at least on the outside, were non-committed -- often with their children and seeking to avoid trouble -- were the largest group in attendance.

However, it was not only the weather that rained on Bush’s parade that day. The protests were, I think, successful in putting a damper on the extremes of Republican triumphalism, even if they could not seriously disrupt events themselves. (It was notable, however, that, perhaps due to a combination of the weather and fear of protestors, many of the seating areas along the parade route were sparsely filled or empty.) There were more-tense standoffs further away from the main inaugural area along with a few clashes with police. It may be that the overwhelming security preparations themselves can be read as a measure of the palpable fear generated by the anti-Bush protests. Also heartening, the youthfully shaggy and pierced protestors who have been the leading street presence of the nascent anti-corporate movement were joined by many middle-aged and mainstream-looking people holding signs and chanting slogans that condemned a stolen election and the sharp rightward turn in American governance. There was a visceral energy among the anti-Bush protestors. An enlivening commitment was apparent among those from the various groups demonstrating for feminism, abortion rights, electoral reform and civil and minority rights and against the death penalty, overreaching corporate power and the religious right. With the focus of a Republican-dominated government, it may be that these groups can grow, organize and unify into a viable left opposition.

Perhaps not. But even in the cold misty drizzle of Inauguration Day, there may yet have been signs of spring.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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