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Division Streets, U.S.A.

Beyond the Mall, Another Sort of American Ritual

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page C01

The churchiness of it all, here, safely past the inspectors in the security tent and at the foot of the Capitol. What a glorious, frozen inaugural morning. The women in furs, the men in fedoras, all sitting straight in folding chairs (each chair bearing the caterer's logo "Party Perfect"), lulled into obedience by the Sousa, the angelic choirs, the mezzo-sopranos and the John Ashcroft hit parade:

"Let the eagle soar, like she's never soared before," bellowed a Mississippi gospel singer named Guy Hovis, and the song he's singing is in fact penned by Ashcroft, God's own Neil Sedaka. "Let the mighty eagle soar, soar with her healing wings, as the land beneath her sings, 'Only God, no other kings.' "

Dressed as Lady Liberty in chains, Stephanie Lamarche of Los Angeles warms herself at a steam vent as she takes part in protests in John Marshall Park. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

It feels like your pew is missing its hymnal. You need to shape up, sit up, get with the program, and don't even think about giggling. Everyone is looking uphill, booing at the arrival of John Kerry on the Jumbotron screen, cheering wildly for . . . Dan and Marilyn Quayle, who have arrived via a time machine that seems always set to keep on redelivering them to this celebratory morning and vantage point.

And behind us, looking out over the Mall, there is a sterilized and snowy Washington, the yearning to get in. The thousands of faces staring back toward the Capitol seem tightened with glee. It's the oddest mixture of happy and rigid -- stern, resolute, adores formality. You'd almost rather just watch the inauguration this way, turned around, looking at these American faces.

And there is something to say for the tradition, so let's say it: It's the inaugurationiness of it all! You should never cancel an inauguration, not because of war or tsunami, and not because only the right people get to have the right tickets. Even when it seems the times cannot bear another contentious, heavily armed, hyper-secure motorcade passing down Pennsylvania Avenue.

No, people have come a long way to feel this very ritual, to feel like the machinery still works, to feel like winners. That is what you can see in their faces: Republican joy.

We do it right by the book, right at the noon hour. Soprano, oath (vice presidential), then soprano, oath (presidential). A man nearby starts screaming "Stop the war! Bring home the troops!" and he is apprehended and silenced and goes out with arms up, flashing the peace sign with each hand. Then there is the president's speech: freedom, liberty, freedom, finding America firm, liberty, the baggage of bigotry, liberty, freedom, God bless America.

Then we're out of here, just like sneaking out of church early.

Everything that everyone naysayed about the D.C. lockdown has come true: There was no way to experience the inauguration on the streets of Washington in 2005 as a plain old American who might enjoy wandering around and seeing it happen. It takes forever just to get anywhere. What you have to settle for is the beautiful parade of chaos, dissent, restriction, tussle.

Loosed from their ticketed areas on the Mall and heading for their appointed parade-view spots, the Republicans then have to cross downtown to get to the appropriate checkpoints, where they face another wait of an hour or more. This also forces them to occupy the same space with the protesters, and this feels more like the country you live in, with wildly opposite people knocking around the streets like ball bearings in a shoe box.

The kids, getting more clever and more angry all the time, have learned a little about spectacle: Four years later there are antiwar marching bands and a team of anti-cheerleaders with pompoms. There are the Billionaires for Bush, who of course aren't either, doing a fine sendup of stereotype.

At Eighth and E streets NW, about 1:20 p.m., a bunch of kids come running around the corner by the Ginger Cove restaurant, past the Penn Camera store. The protesters are wearing black hooded sweatshirts, and red leotards, and gas masks, ski masks, goggles, and for a second you don't know if they're running toward something or away from it until you see cops chasing them, too, and weapons being drawn and arms flailing. Everyone has a camera or a picture phone or a digital recorder. Bystanders scramble out of the way. The crowd flows down toward the FBI building. Snipers watch from above.

Then, about 90 minutes later, near the Willard hotel on 14th Street, whiffs of pepper spray and breathless reports of a flag-burning. This is at once horrible and deliriously exciting, and the kind of thing you'd pay good money to be in the middle of.

And something else happens out here on the inaugural streets, something that never quite translates on TV: It's not the shouting so much as it's the muttering. The way the patriots make jokes about the hippies, but only barely audibly. The way someone throws a snowball at a cowboy near 10th Street, and then won't own it. It's the weariness of the great American divide. The bored teenager forced to walk around with her dad and his giant dead-fetus poster; the peacenik nibbling glumly at her whole-grain bagel.

The streets of mutual disdain -- a 21st-century set piece. Over there, on the other side of the fence, you hear the parade announcer say something about one nation under God, but you'd swear it's much better out here, on this side of the fence, where things aren't quite so clear. The motorcade finally passes, or what you can see of it. The protesters turn their backs on Bush, but really it was about everybody turning his back on something, someone, some other American's unacceptable ideas.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company