So Close, So Far: A Texas Democrat's Day Without Sunshine
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2001; Page F05
Rep. Martin Frost is explaining what it's like to be a Democratic leader on Inauguration Day. He understands that some of his colleagues would rather eat a live armadillo than watch George W. Bush be sworn in as the 43rd president.
But that's not Frost. He crosses his legs to reveal his spiffy black cowboy boots, which is to reveal that he is a Texan, which means he has at least that much in common with President Dubya.
"Texans view this differently," he says. "But I can understand why some [Democratic] members wouldn't want to come to this. It's not a good time when the other party is having all the fun."
It's 8:30 a.m., and Frost has his office open for constituent drop-bys. Trays of fruit and danish have been set out. Pete Collumb, a Republican from Texas who worked in the Bush campaign, stops by to thank Frost for giving him two tickets to the swearing-in ceremony. "He bailed me out," says Collumb, who doesn't even live in Frost's district.
Frost is in a generous mood, and not just concerning tickets. "Give the guy a chance," he says of Bush. "That's my attitude. Give him a chance to set his agenda and then judge."
Now in his 23rd year in the House, Frost is dean of the Texas delegation. That's one tall hat. He's also Democratic Caucus chairman, which is something akin to a field general for the party's disparate troop squadrons. That's an even taller hat.
"My job, along with others in leadership," he says, "is to try to keep Democrats as united as possible."
It ain't easy. Many Democrats are still ornery. Post-election recount blahs. Supreme Court bitterness.
"It's kind of gloomy," says Rep. John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is dean of the Congressional Black Caucus. He boards the Capitol's underground subway en route to the swearing-in, then pulls a black ribbon from his suit pocket. "I've got a little pin to put on." It's a CBC protest pin. There's a small piece of paper attached: This ribbon represents the fact that the will of the people was not honored in the 2000 presidential election. That's how John Conyers feels about George W. Bush's big moment. "But we've got to keep on fighting," he adds.
Some members of the Black Caucus decided to boycott Inauguration Day; John Lewis, for instance, spent the day in his Atlanta district. He thought it would be hypocritical to attend Bush's swearing-in because he doesn't believe Bush is the true elected president.
But the way Conyers figured it, as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, he has to work closely with the Republicans. Better to attend the swearing-in and then "welcome all of my people from Detroit who have come to protest."
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is spotted in a Capitol corridor. How does it feel to be a Democrat today?
"Disappointed, obviously," he says, in quite the hurry. Hoyer is not smiling. "We think our guy won -- both the popular vote and the electoral vote. But we have a change in administrations, and we will move on."
It may have been gloomy mood-wise for the Democrats, but it was really, really gloomy weather-wise. The viewing grounds around the Capitol were a muddy mess. Frost was on the platform in his trench coat and black fedora and one of those clear plastic rain ponchos all the members were handed. He sat in the fifth row behind the Supreme Court justices, right next to Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla). Watts is his counterpart as House GOP Conference chairman.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company