And Now, an Oath From Our Sponsor
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E07
Will the First Lady wear a hat, as she did for her husband's first inauguration? Photo by AP.Now comes the dramatic moment when Bill Clinton, on national television, will raise his right hand, swear his allegiance to the Constitution, and remain president of the United States. This historic ritual communicates to the world at large that Americans can transfer presidential power in a peaceful, orderly manner, except when the alternative is Bob Dole.
The oath of office will be administered by the chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist. Standing between Clinton and Rehnquist will be the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a rich Asian campaign contributor to be named later.
Lightning rods have been placed strategically throughout the Capitol grounds in anticipation of the moment the president swears on the Bible. Separately, Al Gore will take the vice president's oath using an ecologically friendly Bible made entirely of recycled spotted owls.
Some critics have said the inauguration is boring, that there is no mystery to it and thus no reason to give it such massive media coverage, particularly in The Washington Post, which has assigned 375 staffers, including sportswriters, the gardening columnist, all foreign correspondents assigned to Asia, major stockholders and, in a journalistic "coup," Deep Throat.
What the critics will not acknowledge is that there are actually many small dramas being played out, such as:
1. What kind of shoes will the first lady wear?
2. Will she wear a hat?
3. If so, will that cause a bad case of "hat hair"?
Also there is the question of the president's speech. The White House has been in turmoil as rival factions argue over how many times the president should use the "bridge" metaphor. The president wants a seven-bridge speech, Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is urging a mere three-bridge speech, and national opinion surveys show more than 99 percent of Americans want a zero-bridge speech, plus no mention of Hope, Ark., no lip-biting, no pain-feeling, and only one reference, if there must be any at all, to the tens of thousands of adorable children specially trucked in as stage props.
Meanwhile the Democratic National Committee has set a firm, nonnegotiable price of $50,000 for anyone wishing to insert a phrase into the speech, $100,000 for a topic sentence, $500,000 for a brand name and $1 million to have titled corporate sponsorship, i.e., "The Mennen Speed Stick Antiperspirant Inaugural Address."
If tradition holds, the president will write the speech himself the morning of the inauguration, based on something he read before going to sleep the night before, possibly one of the books he heard discussed one afternoon while watching Oprah. Mrs. Clinton is authorized to make changes during the limousine ride to the Capitol so long as she does not advocate nationalizing any industries. When the president takes the microphone he is expected to hurl the text impulsively into the crowd, the way rock stars used to throw guitars, and then speak off the cuff for an hour and a half, simultaneously scanning the crowd for fainters and frostbite victims to whom he can dispatch his medical staffers. Thousands of people will inevitably find themselves listening to the president as they wait in line at a port-a-john.
After the address comes the inaugural parade. President Clinton was reportedly stunned to learn that the motorcade will travel on Pennsylvania Avenue. "I thought I closed that street!" he said.
The president and Mrs. Clinton were greatly moved in 1976 by the sight of then-president Jimmy Carter and his family walking down Pennsylvania Avenue during the parade, and the Clintons hoped for the same this year. Unfortunately the Carters have refused to walk again, claiming they are too old now.
Four years ago the first Clinton inauguration was criticized as overblown, glitzy and saturated in sentimentalism. The official inaugural committee has tried to make this one a more down-to-earth affair, starting with a presidential directive that Aretha Franklin leave the fur coat at home. Barbra Streisand, rather than singing, will do an impersonation of someone who is not a raving egomaniac. At some inaugural balls there will be no beverages at all, only freeze-dried tubes of processed meat originally intended for the Apollo 18 mission. The inaugural committee has also asked that all the poets attending this year's event stick strictly to the limerick format.
The committee, however, promises to add some "special touches" to make the inauguration memorable. If the president stammers or garbles a sentence during the oath of office, for example, he will plunge through a trapdoor, and the presidency will revert to a "first come, first served" basis. There are rumors that, as a spectacular stunt, a process server will leap from a plane, parachute to the Capitol steps, and hand the first lady a subpoena.
The event is officially nonpartisan. Nonetheless, keep an eye out for the fireworks that spell "Gore 2000" and "Gingrich Bites."
The ultimate goal of any inauguration is to bring the nation together in celebration of democracy. Not until the next day can the capital return to scheming, backbiting, ethical transgressions, gridlock and secretly listening in on opponents' cell phone calls.
Why do people here behave so badly? Simple: They've practiced.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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