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A Stoical Kerry on Bush's Day

By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page A28

It was just as John F. Kerry must have dreamed it would be: There he stood on the Capitol dais on a sunny Inauguration Day, looking presidential in blue scarf and overcoat, as the Marine Band played "Hail to the Chief" before the swearing-in.

But wait! Something was terribly wrong. Kerry's seat assignment was in the seventh row. And every time they flashed his picture on the Jumbotron, the crowd -- full of wealthy Republicans -- jeered.

It's no fun being the runner-up on Inauguration Day. To add to the poignancy for Kerry, it was a year and a day since his surprise victory in the Iowa caucus propelled him to the Democratic nomination and, almost, the presidency. And yet, Kerry seemed to embrace the role of loser with ironic amusement.

The senator from Massachusetts took a seat up front, where he was sure to be seen on television playing the part of Good Sport. When the color guard approached, he clutched his breast as if suffering a bout of arrhythmia. When the national anthem played, he sang as if he were Denyce Graves. When President Bush spoke, he clapped politely -- and gazed over the Mall with a faraway look.

But Kerry betrayed little of the pain that was so evident when Al Gore stood on the same platform in defeat four years ago. For Gore, it was the beginning of his disappearance from public life and his conversion into a chunky, bearded professor. For Kerry, this is a week of reemergence. Before the inauguration, he fired off two e-mails to his supporters, one highlighting his vote Wednesday against Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and one demanding Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation as defense secretary.

"Democracy means working together for the good of our country; it also means keeping faith with your ideals, never retreating from core convictions even as you work to find common ground," Kerry said in a statement his office released yesterday morning. On Monday, he will introduce a plan to provide health coverage to all children, picking a fight with GOP lawmakers and the White House.

If Kerry has political combat on the mind, it wasn't out of place yesterday. The festivities at the Capitol at times resembled a campaign rally more than the solemn inaugural ritual. The big donors -- the "underwriters" who gave $250,000 for the inauguration and the "sponsors" who could afford no more than $100,000 -- sat up front in "Perfect Party" plastic folding chairs. Farther back, demonstrators unfurled an antiwar sign and booed Bush before they were shouted down by supporters who chanted "USA!"

The result was predictably partisan: dueling cheers, from the orchestra seats for former president George H.W. Bush, and from the cheap seats for former president Bill Clinton. The inaugural committee skipped the likes of "America the Beautiful" for Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch's ditty, "Heal Our Land," and outgoing attorney general John D. Ashcroft's schmaltzy "Let the Eagle Soar" ("This country's far too young to die/Though she's cried a bit for what we've put her through").

In some ways, Kerry has moved beyond his loss. His Inauguration Day breakfast conversation with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, an aide said, was about Sunday's football playoff between his New England Patriots and her Pittsburgh Steelers -- at Heinz Field. But the candidate hasn't entirely emerged from the campaign and a topsy-turvy Election Day in which early exit polls showed him winning. The night before the inauguration, he had drinks at the Hawk and Dove on Capitol Hill to remember his Iowa conquest with former campaign staffers.

Nor has the other side forgotten Kerry. When the former candidate emerged on the West Front of the Capitol yesterday morning and his smiling image was broadcast, the crowd booed and groaned. One man could be heard to call out, "Loser!" Kerry took his seat alongside an old friend, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and quickly got to the task at hand: projecting both equanimity and magnanimity.

He admired Harkin's new Stetson. He playfully knocked a 10-gallon hat that was obstructing his view of the lectern off the head of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). When Vice President Cheney entered, he stood and offered a wan smile. When Bush entered, he stood and applauded politely until the last bars of "Hail to the Chief." When Bush took his oath, Kerry forced a tight, crooked smile -- the sort of expression that, on Bush's face, is commonly called a smirk.

As Bush read an address full of the religious imagery that helped to mobilize voters against Kerry -- "the image of the Maker," "the truths of Sinai" -- Kerry listened politely, applauded lightly and shifted in his seat. When demonstrators interrupted Bush, Kerry looked toward the commotion, where one protester had unfurled a banner proclaiming "No More War" and another was loudly booing the president.

The speech over, Bush and Cheney waved to the cheering crowd. Off to the side, Harkin put his arm on Kerry's back and offered some private condolence. Kerry hugged his colleague and then closed his eyes and bowed his head for the closing prayer. Only when the minister mention those "ensnarled in petty partisan politics" did the former nominee indulge in a wry smile.

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