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In This Political Theater, A Supporting Cast of Thousands

By Joel Achenbach
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page A19

It was a big, nervous party. An inauguration is so much harder to pull off now that everyone is viewed as a potential terrorist. The cops were lined four deep in some places along the parade route. The president talked a lot about freedom, but he was the least free man in Washington.

That was probably him in that limo that just went by. (They don't label the one carrying the president very well these days.) When he emerged, the door of the limo looked as thick as the door of a bank vault. The Secret Service probably wished he'd phoned in this inauguration from one of those secret Dick Cheney bunkers.

Members of the Army Band march past the Navy Memorial, where the parade spectators included a group of anti-Bush protesters. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

Nonetheless the second inauguration of George W. Bush proceeded without any major disasters. Al Qaeda didn't crash the party. The biggest hazard proved to be the cold, which, though not exactly bitter, was still capable of numbing your feet. Capitol Police handled some hypothermia cases, plus a woman so inspired by the event she went into labor.

There were plenty of Republicans on hand who soaked in the pageantry and tapped their feet to every spit-shined note of "The Stars and Stripes Forever." America reminded the world: Our Marine Band can still whip your Marine Band. And there were moments that would have moved the most jaded partisan heart -- the stage shared by Republican and Democratic presidents, for example, or the sight of the chief justice, William Rehnquist, rumored to be near death's door, slowly emerging from the Capitol under his own power, ready to fulfill his duty and administer the oath of office.

"Fabulous. Makes you proud to be an American. Proud of our history. Proud of what we do in the world," said Janice Hayes, a retired California judge who seemed to have picked up the verbal pacing of the president.

"I like the enthusiasm he had. Love of the country. Love of the people," said Jack Jacobs, a Dallas real estate salesman whose good mood may have had something to do with selling a house the other day for $5.1 million ("They all pay cash! It's amazing!").

Claims that inaugurations are times of healing and harmony would be more easily believed had the crowd on the West Lawn not booed so lustily when John Kerry appeared on the big screens.

There were those who loathed every minute of this day, and made sure to demonstrate that sentiment, heckling the president during his speech, demanding an end to the war in Iraq. On the parade route, thousands of people waved signs saying "War Mongers" or "Hail to the Thief" or "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" or something along those lines.

"Here come the fascists," said Joel Brooks, 21, of New York, seeing the motorcade approaching.

"He scares me," said Toni Eubanks, who flew from Ann Arbor, Mich., to turn her back on the president. It took her 2 1/2 hours to clear security (some people reported four-hour lines), and then she faced a phalanx of three-deep state troopers and cops lining Pennsylvania Avenue. "Is this to protect us from terrorists?" she asked.

As the president passed by in his mobile fortress, he may have had a hard time seeing how many people had turned away from him. But for Eubanks that didn't matter. "It will make me feel better," she said.

The president eventually reached a patch of the parade route deemed safe enough for a brief Man of the People appearance outside the limo, though he was almost lost amid the crowd of Secret Service agents wearing black dusters and sunglasses and looking very much like characters out of "The Matrix."

Anarchists and anti-capitalists and assorted radicals caused some skirmishes, and there were some arrests. Security in America has gotten so tense that, when something dicey happens, there's a sigh of relief when everyone realizes it was just the protesters. People hear sirens and think: No problem, just a dust-up with the Maoists.

You couldn't walk near downtown without hearing the two sides, pro-Bush and anti-Bush, jeering one another. A woman whose son is fighting in Iraq yelled at a protester to get off his butt and get a job. At McPherson Square a man tried to give a flag to Laura Lampton of Jackson, Miss., telling her it represented one of the soldiers killed in Iraq.

"No thank you, I'll pray for them," she said.

"That won't bring them back!" the protester said.

"Neither will the flag!" she answered.

The protests were scattered. The Radical Cheerleaders of D.C., most of them American University students, performed dance routines while chanting things like, "Two-four-six-eight, we're the ones who ovulate!" This had to do with reproductive rights.

There were profiteers: A bagel cost two bucks, a pretzel four, a cheesy inaugural cap 10. There were long lines at a gourmet coffee shop, with a security guard posted at the door in case the anarchists tried to trash the place.

And you couldn't get anywhere. That way led to a dead end. That there is just an exit. That entrance is closed due to protesters. That exit is closed due to protesters. You need the green ticket. You need the special credential. You need to get lost.

A presidential inauguration is a huge amount of fuss and bother. Recall that a little more than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson walked from his boarding house to the Capitol to take the oath as president of the United States, and observers marveled at his simple suit, his modest retinue of Virginia militiamen, the overall atmosphere of "republican virtue." Jefferson delivered his speech in a voice so soft that hardly anyone in the room could hear a word.

That was before the invention of the Jumbotron. Or CNN. Or the precision science of color-coded seating charts. A presidential inauguration has become a spectacle that would not only confound Jefferson but very possibly cause his brain to explode.

The oath of office came a couple of minutes early, a mild violation of the script, and then Bush did as he promised, delivering a speech about freedom. Although at times he painted a picture in strokes so broad he might well have been using a roller, he delivered his lines firmly, boldly. He scolded the hand-wringers. He used up a year's allotment of "freedoms," but that was intentional. He is a man with a mission; he will be the Great Liberator. Halfway through the speech it became obvious that he would never stoop rhetorically to the level of mentioning an actual country or even a specific part of the world. People knew what he meant, even if, at some basic level, he delivered the entire speech in code.

"Clearly the president did not want anyone to miss the theme, which was Universal Freedom," Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana said in a Capitol corridor afterward. And then Lugar, who is that exotic creature known as a moderate Republican, suggested that things may get complicated when it comes time to put that theme into action. "There's a whole lot of questions that will follow about how this will all fit."

The simplicity of the message contrasted with the complexity of the day's logistics. By 5:30 in the morning the military honor guards, our soldiers of ceremony, were ready for action at the Capitol. By 8 in the morning there were long lines at the security checkpoints for the Senate office buildings, as constituents waited to get inside for receptions with free doughnuts and coffee.

A little after 9, Thomas Shaw, 36, a Capitol custodian, pushed his broom through a corridor, saying, "We're going to dust-mop this floor so it looks good and clean for when the president comes in." He kept going up and back, up and back, as people tracked in dirt and mud.

Soon the speaker of the House, big Dennis Hastert, came inside with so many bodyguards fore and aft they could easily have carried him. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) walked by and commented on inaugurations in the post-9/11 era. "It's never going to be the same again," the senator said.

The closer one got to the platform itself, the place where Bush would take the oath, the quicker the movements of the military people and cops and the technical folks wearing big signs saying things like "IT Support." A custodian hurriedly deployed a vacuum to suck up the dried mud on the red and blue carpet leading to the podium. Chris McCary, an NBC cameraman, lay on the floor, setting up the perfect shot, the camera ankle-high and aimed up the stairs at an angle that would capture the president's stately descent just before emerging into open air. "Gives it a lot of drama," McCary said.

And though he was nervous, he pulled off the shot perfectly, giving the public what they expect, a magical glimpse behind the scenes. This was how the day went: People did their jobs, most of them anonymously, a few of them in full view of the world. They followed their scripts, advanced their causes, shouted their beliefs, and delivered their lines loud and clear.

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