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A Warm Feeling on a Cold DayBy Karl Vick
Special to WashingtonPost.com
Sunday, January 19, 1997
Today's Final Update: 6:30 p.m.
An inauguration is one thing to a president and another for the people watching it on television. But it's something else altogether for those who see it at ground level. For the next two days that's the experience that I -- with the help of Post photographer Frank Johnston and WashingtonPost.com correspondent Sascha Segan -- will try to share through these postings.
He's a cattle farmer from Bremond, Tx. She lives in Washington and works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They spent the day on the Mall four years ago when Bill Clinton first took the oath.
They'd had a good time again today. In particular, she says, they liked the "Bridge to the 21st Century" installation, where passersby could post their thoughts about the future. "We really enjoyed reading everybody's comments," Jennifer says.
But, no question, 1993 was more fun.
"More of a partying atmosphere," says George.
Part of the difference is design. Four years ago, the sides of tents were rolled up so that people passing by could see in. The effect was more communal, with shorter lines. But it also left everyone exposed to the elements, which are far more severe this time around.
Weather doesn't bother George. "It's like a football game," he says. "You still go." But he doesn't see it as the controlling issue anyway.
"This is kind of too damn organized or something," he says. "The tents are just too damn nice."
The differences are both stark and subtle. Four years ago, there was nothing like the Media Center for the 53rd Presidential Inaugural. The building where this is being written looks like a tent from the outside, but those are beams behind the bunting. The portable toilets for the press are in tidy trailers (not those flimsy plastic Don's Johns lined up for everyone else). And the halogen lamps evenly spaced on the tables are hooded to keep any glare off the three theatre-screen television monitors on the far wall (audio available through headsets).
On the other hand, four years ago Clinton had won after running a populist campaign. His first inaugural was deliberately cast as a party for the people, and the people provided the fire.
It's pretty hard to run a populist campaign after four years in office. And it's not much easier to recapture a moment in time, especially in this cold.
"Besides cold, it was inspiring," says Fred Greene, an elementary school principal who lives in Bowie, Md. "Especially the tribute to Dr. King. We were inside for half of it."
"Gave me kind of a warm feeling about our country. Which you kind of lose track of."
By midafternoon, the "American Journey" is proving to be anything but a lonely one. The exhibition tents are packed, and the lines outside them grow longer and longer and longer.
"The exhibits and shows and stuff are nice, but if you can't get in what's the point?" says Penny Campbell of Lusby, Md., who waited an hour outside the tent where Whoopi Goldberg was performing but never got in. "We were really upset."
And really cold.
"In the sun it's fine," Campbell says. "But as soon as you get into the shade..."
An hour was how long Nancy Volkers had been waiting to get into the Heritage Hall Tent, though she wasn't complaining quite yet. The performance she had come to see, by resilient folkies Peter, Paul and Mary, wasn't scheduled to start for another quarter-hour. The line stretched for a couple of hundred feet behind her.
"Cold feet, otherwise all right," Volkers reports. She doesn't remember the lines being nearly so bad four years ago, though. "Kind of wind up walking around watching other people stand in line," she says.
This afternoon, Maya Angelou's tones rang out like the voice of God from Heritage Hall. Inside, the poet was introducing an abbreviated performance of the musical tribute "King!" one day before the national holiday honoring the martyred civil rights leader.
"Martin Luther King is a hero," Angelou said. "Not was, is. To us all."
When she left the stage, her place was taken by a woman who signed the lyrics for the deaf. Signers are on every stage here, as they were four years ago, and when what they're translating is music the performance at hand, as it were, registers an increase of at least one additional dimension.
One of the faster moving lines led to the Technology Playground Tent, which turned out to feel more like a trade show than anything else. It's all booths and computer screens and friendly sales people. Except they're not allowed to sell anything.
The men standing at the Advance: Medical Imaging Technology exhibit wore white lab coats. "That's a hip replacement surgery you're seeing," one said. "That's enhanced."
The exhibitors frankly described the Technology Playground as an opportunity to display the state of the art under the imprimatur of the presidential seal.
"We're not allowed to put out our brochures and stuff," said Dean Chang, of a San Jose company called Immersion. "We're basically trying to show the general public, hey, this is neat stuff that'll be coming out on the market."
Immersion was showing off "Force Feedback" joysticks that translate sensation from the screen into the holder's palm. Play air hockey and feel the whack of the disk. Drag the cursor across a serration and feel the drag and bumps.
"We can model the sensation of stirring molasses," Chang says.
Across the aisle, even larger crowds were gathered at the Silicon Graphics display, where an insect-like computer character named Reginald was chattering away with human guests in a diverting interactive display. Silicon Graphics is the firm that did the special effects for Jurassic Park, among other blockbusters, Chang points out.
"So they're doing graphics," he says. "We're doing sensation. And together, you get a really realistic experience.
"Of course," he adds, "some would argue that rather than go to all the trouble, why not just actually do it?"
On 15th Street NW, a young man is backing a dolly out of The Presidential Inauguration Store. He loses his balance for a moment, the cargo tips, and a case of navy blue 53rd Presidential Inauguration mugs crash onto the sidewalk.
"It happens," the woman behind him says, as if it's no great loss.
A few blocks away, though, the Inaugural Committee is getting $15 a piece for what appears to be the same mug. At official inauguration souvenir stands along The National Mall, where thousands are gathering in the tent city dubbed "An American Journey," buttons go for $5 and they want $45 for a top-of-the-line, long-sleeved tee shirt.
"That's one thing that's different," said Barbara Kallas of Alexandria, Va., who also visited the Mall tents four years ago for the last inauguration. "Twenty bucks for a shirt. I'm, like, jeez, I'll pass."
Asked what she remembers from 1993, Kallas's reply is immediate and telling. "Don't Inhale to the Chief buttons," she says. "They were selling them at the corner of 12th and Independence."
Nothing so unauthorized would be on sale in the official site, especially this year, when the president's inaugural committee asked U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin to ban the sale of souvenirs by anyone else. Sporkin laughed the committee out of court, but its persistent efforts to claim maximum profits from trinket sales to help cover the weekend's $30 million bill subsequently prompted a lawsuit from a Washington firm that wholesales souvenirs to vendors.
The effort is visible elsewhere in tent city, too. At 7th Street and Madison Drive, five burly men are lugging cable. Each man wears an orange jacket reading "QVC."
"What are you doing here?" a passerby asks.
"Selling stuff," says jacket number one. His smile suggests it was an idiotic question.
"We're the official retailer," a second jacket explains. The cable, he explains, is for the remote camera that will beam a live feed back to the QVC studio in Pennsylvania, where the host peddles the committee's official souvenirs. "We already did one show last night."
What QVC viewers saw, besides the inaugural seal on a $45 blanket, was a lot of people walking in that splay-footed way you do when you're wearing more than one pair of pants.
By all accounts Saturday was an extraordinarily cold day on the Mall, and people came prepared today. But after a bitter morning chill, it turned out to be a winter day of reasonably ordinary coldness.
"Hey, it's a heat wave! A tropical heat wave!" one man said as he emerged from the music tent called Harmony Hall into the midday sunshine.
The John Bapst Memorial High School band, billed as the world's largest high school band, had just completed a program that began with the 007 theme and concluded with the Maine state song, "a song that's very well known to Mainers everywhere," the director said. And judging from the number of people clapping along, there were a fair number of Mainers in the tent.
A few doors down, Fran Meyer had found a comfortable seat outdoors -- atop a steel grate from which steam poured out of the ground. This testament to the Steam Age was positioned beside the two tractor-trailers where Silicon Graphics invited strollers to sample the state of the art in computer graphics. Dozens of people waited in line. Meyer wasn't moving.
Around her were five of the Boy Scouts from Troop 209 in nearby Silver Spring, Md., that Meyer was supervising for the day. Their red windbreakers identified them as volunteers, mostly ushers. They were expected at another tent. Meyer checked her watch, then glanced at 12-year-old Henry Solomon, who had moved onto the center of the grate.
She said: "Okay, two more minutes for Henry to cook."
There actually is a Bridge to the 21st Century here. Made from planking and pipes, it doesn't really begin anywhere or lead anywhere, but it's as close to a centerpiece as anything at the "The American Journey," and people seem to like it.
They stroll up one side and down the other on a grade that appears to be wheelchair accessible. A teen-age blonde girl smiles stiffly and waves like she's in a parade. A dad carries his child over on his shoulders.
Others don't cross the bridge. They read it.
"WHAT MUST WE DO TO BUILD A BRIDGE TO THE 21ST CENTURY?" reads the sign on a nearby kiosk. There are cards and markers on a table nearby, and glue sticks so people can mount their replies after writing them.
"Heat the Mall!"
"Have More Sex! More often...."
"Help Old People"
"Think Deep Thoughts"
"Stop the bickering on the Hill and do something!"
"A Free and Independent East Timor!"
"Cut My Taxes & Give My Children a Chance."
"Read more Vonnegut"
"Cut Your Hair"
"Watch Star Trek and X-Files"
"Love Big Daddy and Beer"
"Leave Me Alone!"
"Neuter Ralph Reed!"
"Stop the Killings"
"That wall is now in the National Archives," Yampolsky says.
The bridge may end up there, too. "Look at it," she says. "It's what people long to do, isn't it?"
Apparently. The cards number in the hundreds.
"I'm hoping this will be a mobilizing, unifying experience," the artist says. "I'm hoping it will be as unifying a principle as war."
Please check back throughout the day today for more live reports from Karl.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company