From The Post
Go to Inauguration '97
Go to National Section
Go to Home Page
Savoring Slice of American PieBy Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page A01
The important thing this time was to be there, to breathe deeply the air of a historical moment, to see the limos and the escorts and a wonderful parade, to have someone take pictures to show you were present as the president of the United States was inaugurated.
More than 200,000 people elected to be a witness to history yesterday at the nation's 53rd inaugural celebration. President Clinton's 22-minute speech floated across the frozen Capitol Reflecting Pool, past the bronze shoulders of the Ulysses S. Grant statue and out to an audience of America: young and old, black, brown and white—and even a few Republicans.
Spectators, bundled up against the cold, heard the president's call to build a "land of new promise" as they waited expectantly for the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue. The crowds cheered when the bands and floats put a festive flourish on the traditional celebration.
"It's just a slice of America that you can't get anyplace else other than Washington, D.C., every four years," said Paul Burbrink, 44, of Lorton, who has attended every inauguration since 1965.
This was, however, a more muted inauguration than Clinton's first, observed by smaller crowds, perhaps because yesterday's ceremony was subdued by repetition. The president's speech brought polite applause—and then many headed for the exits.
"I don't know, it didn't inspire me. It seemed so—the same," said Teena James, 28, who a few minutes earlier had been hopping from foot to foot in anticipation of what she predicted would be "a really great speech."
The inaugural players were all familiar—Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich even drew a scattering of boos. And most of those waiting in the cold along Pennsylvania Avenue did not see the president because the first family walked only the last block to the White House.
But for others, just to be there was exciting enough.
"I came all the way on the train, across the Dakotas, across the country, in the snow from Seattle. I mentally pushed the train to be here for this moment," said Diane Sando, 60. "Such an exciting day."
History puts an imprint of grave import on Inauguration Day, and Washington adds its own spice of excitement: the urgent blue-and-red flash of police lights, the quick step of the crowds streaming toward the Capitol, the flutter of hundreds of American flags, the stir in the throat as Santita Jackson sang the national anthem at the end of the ceremony.
And everyone likes a parade, even a late one. President Clinton tarried over lunch at the Capitol, then headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House 75 minutes late, so the parade that followed him did not finish until a half-hour after sunset.
When the president finally went by in his limousine, hundreds of people in the crowd began to depart. Several said they were disappointed that he had been so late and had not gotten out to greet the celebrants who lined the avenue until he was almost at the White House.
"You'd think that since he had such a long lunch, he could have gotten out and walked," said Diana Bolen, who said she had come from Nome, Alaska, to see the inauguration.
"We were wondering what he'd think if he'd gotten on the parade route and nobody was there," grumbled Susie Castle, who came with her husband and two children but left, cold and tired, soon after the parade finally got underway.
There were relatively few complications from the day. Metro stations were temporarily jammed after the inaugural ceremony and toward the end of the parade. But Metro officials estimated that subway trains handled only about half the crowd they carried during Clinton's first inauguration, a record-setting day on which people made 811,000 trips on the system.
Abortion protesters caused tempers to flare on the parade route, but they had court permission to be there, and police made no arrests.
Police did arrest three women and two men who "streaked" bare-chested onto the parade route. They said they were animal rights activists protesting the killing of animals for fur coats. They were charged with crossing a police line and released after putting up $50 each. Area hospitals reported treating about two dozen people for minor ailments and exposure to the cold.
After the daytime ceremonies, the Clintons and Gores embarked on an evening of parties. The president planned to hit all 14 "official" inaugural balls, and his ever-optimistic formal schedule called for his day to end about 4 a.m. today.
At one of the balls, the mid-Atlantic ball at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, thousands of elegantly dressed partygoers waited patiently for the president to show up last night.
"This has been wonderful," said Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who attended with his wife, Frances Anne. "Yesterday, the Terps won, and today, a Democratic president is inaugurated."
Clinton and Vice President Gore were inaugurated for their second term in the day's most dramatic setting, with the flag-draped Capitol as a backdrop and the sweep of the Mall before them.
They wore heavy overcoats as the day began under a cold, wool-gray sky. But just as the ceremony got underway, the sun offered its faint tribute to the occasion, and the temperature rose to a high of 45 degrees in the next three hours. It still was too cold for some.
The crowd, estimated by Capitol Police at somewhat less than a quarter-million, arrived early and waited patiently for the historic moment.
Security was the tightest of any inauguration, but most spectators said they did not mind.
"It has to be done, unfortunately. But I'm glad they're careful," said a fur-coated Pat Beauchamp, 57, of North Kingston, R.I., as she walked through a metal detector enroute to the Capitol grounds.
James Newman Smith might have been the youngest present. At a few days less than 3 months, he peeked skeptically out of a blue polar fleece bag.
"His opinion of all of this is it's too damned cold, and where's lunch," said his father, Newman Smith, 47, of Rockville.
Those in the VIP section nearest the podium on the Capitol lawn applauded noticeably longer than most others after the president's speech. But the lack of visible enthusiasm from much of the crowd was perhaps only a sign of rhetoric fatigue after the long presidential campaign.
It would be easy to be cynical, spectator Ken MacGregor said, easy to shrug off Clinton's address as more platitudes and puffery. But maybe, the Michigan educator said, maybe with a can-do frame of mind and the willingness to take the president's advice that "we are the solution," some of our nation's problems can be solved.
"We spent the last 50 years fixing the cities of other nations. We could fix our own in a heartbeat," said MacGregor, 54. "If we don't give poor kids a decent education, they end up in prison. We can make a difference if we target them in second or third grade.
"Oh, don't get me up on my soapbox," he demurred, suddenly reticent. Call him a true believer if you want. "I taught government in high schools for six years, and I will go back to that when I retire. I do think people pay attention to this. When Clinton talks about the problems of pensions and Social Security and education and crime, I think people generally agree."
Less impressed with the speech were District officials, who were unhappy Clinton made no mention of the city in his address.
"He should have," said D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. "I thought he would."
Pat Jennings, 40, moved to the Washington area from Alaska in 1995, and this was his first opportunity to see an inauguration.
"It's one of those things you read about when you're in grade school history class. This is like being at history as it occurs. It's a bit overwhelming. It's a big deal seeing the president. It is kind of like an Englishman seeing the queen."
People began arriving before dawn yesterday to claim curbside space at prime viewing positions, such as the stretch near Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. They brought chairs, blankets, pillows, flags and enough food for a week-long campout.
One couple came from China and were on the avenue watching a U.S. president being sworn in. They were here visiting their son, Yuan Yao, 43, of Oakton, a librarian at Georgetown University who voted for the first time last year as a new U.S. citizen.
"I realize my vote is small, but collectively it has worked," Yao said. "And this is all kind of a show, but it really means something to me."
As the day proceeded, though, the patience of the inaugural crowd was tested by an ever-later president. After his oath of office, Clinton went to Statuary Hall in the Capitol for the traditional lunch with congressional leaders. The 6,000 parade participants couldn't start marching until after 3 p.m., when he left for the White House.
When the festive procession finally churned up Pennsylvania Avenue, the inaugural parade was pure American. It ranged from the brassy, spit-shined military bands of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard to a group of youngsters on unicycles doing the Macarena.
There were tumblers, cheerleaders and synchronized rope jumpers; helicopter pilots from the Vietnam War, Navajo Indians who sent messages during World War II that none of our enemies could decode and Mormons in a covered wagon depicting the early settlers in Utah.
And, of course, there were the mighty marching bands—Florida A&M, Southern University and James Madison University stand out among them. Bringing up the rear, in the cold and darkness, was the high school marching band from Castroville, Calif., artichoke capital of the world.
Sam Downing, chief executive officer of Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, which had helped raise money to send the band to Washington, stood for hours in the bleachers waiting for the group to pass.
"But it was worth it," Downing said, snapping pictures—his flash firing—as the pride of Castroville marched by.
Arthur Colbert, of Springdale, Md., spent hours yesterday putting the final touches on the floats.
On one of them, Frankie Yankovic, 81, of Milwaukee, reigned as "America's Polka King."
"This is really making history," said his wife, Ida Yankovic. "It's the first time a polka float has been recognized."
Barbara Lane, of Milwaukee, even wrote a polka song for the event:
We're on our way to the White House Pennsylvania Avenue.
We're on our way to the White House and we're proud of our red, white and blue.
The polka is our state dance.
A dance that sets the pace.
It's great to play for the president but Wisconsin's our home base.
Clinton started his day by attending church services at Metropolitan AME Church on M Street NW. About 2,200 people crowded into the sanctuary and downstairs overflow area to worship with him during a 2½-hour interfaith prayer service.
Four years ago, Metropolitan was the first predominantly black church to host an inaugural prayer service. This year's inaugural organizers returned to the 159-year-old church, which has deep roots in the civil rights movement, in part because the inaugural coincided with the celebration of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson spoke at the service about the legacy of King. Parishioners noted with satisfaction that the Clintons had come to the church before their first inauguration in 1993.
"I'm gratified that they came back," said Pius Akinola, 32, a native of Nigeria and a member for seven years. "I guess they were happy with the first service."
Some of the greatest excitement centered less on Clinton and more on some of the Hollywood celebrities who attended the inauguration.
"I'm going to hyperventilate! I'm going to hyperventilate!" screamed an excited Melissa Matthews, 16, of Coats, N.C., who was at Planet Hollywood. "I'm going to hyperventilate if I see Antonio Banderas."
But the restaurant staff escorted the Latin actor and his mink-clad wife, actress Melanie Griffith, through a back delivery entrance and into a waiting limousine, much to the dismay of Matthews and other fans.
"They cheated!" complained John Arnett, of Fairfax. "They brought him out of the back. It was pretty rotten."
Outside the fenced-off areas, the thousands without tickets watched the swearing-in ceremony on massive television screens. These were the bleacher seats at the ballpark, a genuine, all-American peanut gallery. The president went by his first name here: "Hey, Bill." "Right on, Bill." "Go, Bill."
Ann Heath, 49, and her brother, Raymond Heath, 40, were among the folks who crowded together in the chill, straining on tiptoe at times to see over the heads in front of them.
"We should all be together for this," said Ann Heath, who wore an Inauguration Day button on her coat. "This is the way the Constitution would have it, Democrats and Republicans together for this and not fighting and fussing all of the time."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company