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Floating to the End
By Karl Vick
Hot tickets this weekend have tended to be for private parties, especially the "after hours" cocktail party that MTV Networks and Viacom hosted at the Corcoran Gallery Saturday night, and Sunday's Rock the Vote gala at a bizarrely decorated downtown restaurant called Red Sage.
What celebrities were in town -- Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crowe, Jimmy Smits and Willie Brown -- were at one or the other, or both (as Chelsea Clinton was), and admission to the Rock the Vote affair was so hard to come by that guests were given PIN numbers to recite at a checkpoint that waited for them beyond the tungsten glare of the photographers stationed on celebrity watch at the entrance.
Inaugurals are a lot of things -- regal and populist, martial and glamorous and homespun -- and they all come together in the parade. It's the country strolling past its new president, and if he's not impressed by the Virginia Tech Highty-Tighties, maybe a dozen kids doing the Macarena on unicycles will turn his head.
Polka King Frank Yankovic came by aboard a float labeled simply "Wisconsin." Mormons drove a covered wagon commemorating the 150th anniverary of the trip to Utah ("Faith in Every Footstep"). The delegation from American Samoa walked behind a banner imploring, "Mr. President Come To SAMOA."
There were kids carrying plastic shovels and pulling red Radio Flyer wagons behind an equestrian honor guard. A team of tumblers from Chicago ran from spot to spot with their mats, threw them down, and started flying over each other, to huge applause. And it's tempting to say the sky was clear because The Marching 100 of Florida A&M University tore the lid off the place.
Right behind them was the Mid-American Pom-Pon All-Star Team, never seeming quieter. Farther back was the stolid gents bearing the standard of the Citizens' Hose Company of Smyrna, Del.
But a lot of people on the curb went the distance as well, because -- it's the story of the weekend -- you truly weren't sure what you were going to see next.
A Vietnam era helicopter came by, pushed by a John Deere riding mower. Dangling from the back rotor was a Wile E. Coyote plush toy.
The public address announcer said: "This float is called Explosion of the Industrial Age."
There was a big gear on it, turning that slow way that things turn on floats. There was also what appeared to be a box camera atop a tripod. And toward the front, hanging from a beam, was a gigantic plastic bag with lettering on it.
A girl in a red usher's jacket read it aloud: "P-L-A-S-M-A."
"Plasma," she said. "What a great thing to have on a float."
"BAND START PLAYING HERE"
The sign stands on the northwest corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and as the afternoon grew longer and longer, it began to seem less like a cue and more like a taunt.
The inaugural parade scheduled to start at 2 p.m. did not get underway until well after 3, and 4 p.m. arrived at the White House long before the first float did.
"It's too late. We're two hours late!" yelps a woman in a racoon coat at 14th and Pennsylvania, the corner commanding the best view toward the Capitol.
Every quarter hour or so, beleaguered public address announcers offer apologetic updates -- "He's just finished lunch," one proclaimed at 3 p.m. "A long, leisurely lunch." -- and do their best to offer pastimes, including Presidential Trivia (The first president to be inaugurated wearing long pants? John Quincy Adams).
But people have been drifting away in the 20 minutes since the President of the United States and Mrs. Clinton rode by, just as many set off from the Mall this morning once he was sworn in. At the time, most were leaving to take up positions along the parade route, so they've been here for hours.
"I think, because it's a nice warm day, for January, that this is a good thing," says Nadine Potalivo, making the best of things at her position on 15th Street. "Look! People are talking to each other!"
"It happens," shrugged Susan Hinton, from her perch atop the broad, strong shoulders of her husband, Tim. The Fairfax County, Va., residents said they were mostly there for the sake of seven-year-old Michael, who had found his own vantage in what can only be described as a potted evergreen, with three other kids.
You'll want some altitude on this route. There are bleachers, but you have to pay for them -- which explains why the benches across the street are barely half full. "A lot of bare spots," Tim Hinton observes.
Regular citizens have to do the best they can on sidewalks crowded four and five people deep. From the rear of the crowd, a man of medium height (5-foot-9) gets a clear enough vision of the military units that precede the president's limosine with bayonets fixed; of "Pershing's Own" Army band as it makes the turn near the statue of old Blackjack in Pershing Park; and of the four towering press trucks that herald the president's passage.
"Oh my God!" a woman cries as the sight of the trucks, terraced flatbeds that in their tottering untidiness look like something out of "The Grapes of Wrath."
"I can't see a thing!" someone howls from the back.
"Hello" says a disembodied voice. It seems to be coming from the limousine. It may belong to the president.
"Hello" says the voice again, a half block farther away now.
And that's it. Two minutes later, a distant cheer rises from around the corner, closer to the White House. Five minutes later, the PA announcer at 14th Street breaks the news.
"Ladies and gentlemen, for your information, the President and Mrs. Clinton did walk the last two blocks of the route.
"The good news is, they'll soon be seated at the reviewing stand."
When theater people talk about what goes into a successful production, you usually hear about creating "a sense of occasion." The reference is not to what happens on stage, but on the audience's side of the curtain: Arriving in the lobby, being guided to the seat, handed a playbill, and waiting. It's all about anticipation.
In Washington, D.C., the bleachers go up along Pennsylvania Avenue weeks before an inauguration, and it works every time. By the time city crews lift the street's portable stoplights out of their slots the day before the parade, the hook has already been baited.
"Got any extra tickets? That family needs some." The plea came from a Capitol Police officer, taking a moment from directing pedestrian traffic to do a little scalping. "Got any extra tickets?"
There's a physical hierarchy to the swearing-in ceremony. The terraces of the Capitol grounds are labeled by color: Orange, Green, Purple, Gray, etc. The highest is at the level of the Capitol building itself, from which Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) emerged shortly after 10 a.m. with his date, ABC News' Barbara Walters.
In a coat that showed off her legs, Babs was betting that the weather forecast was accurate. They climbed into a town car for the trip to the White House, then came back with the president in that phemonomenal motorcade whose first layer of D.C. Police motorcycles fills the breadth of Pennsylvania.
"We're basically just riding in the parade," says Beth Wilson, looking dashing astride the beast in a green canvas hat and black duster. They had journeyed from Waldron, Ark., home of the Rasputin Mule Farm, named for a despotic boss.
"I'm on the Rasputin Mule Farm Scholarship," Beth explains, and is taking time from her first-year legal studies at the University of Arkansas. Asked if the scholarship is competitive, she allows that "I have an edge because my dad is the head wrangler."
The figure approaching behind her wears a white helmet topped by the kind of brass spear you see in pictures of German soldiers in World War One. Under this one is Branden Sacks, 15, of the Valley Forge Military Academy. "Everybody on the mounted battalion has one," Branden says. His warm smile reveals a mouth full of braces.
Farther down are the mounted police. "You'll be sorry, man," a gray-haired officer is telling another, with a nod that says he knows exactly what he's talking about. "All that coffee. Long parade route."
Seeing the president sworn in without holding a ticket turns out to be an exercise in trade-offs. Anticipating walk-ups, organizers have mounted Jumbotron-style video screens to the left and right of the Capitol, and installed speakers a block beyond the official area.
The crowd is quiet in a way that seems more respectful than reverent. When Jessye Norman gets to the "Oh beautiful for spacious skies" section of her "American Medley," a few voices join in (with the second-or-so delay between the sound system and the video, it already seemed as though more than one person was singing anyway).
The applause is strong but mittened when Al Gore finishes taking his oath as vice president. When Clinton approaches the podium, people lift disposable cameras over their heads to shoot the screen.
Beside it, a traffic light is still working on the blocked street. The light is red when Clinton begins repeating the oath of office, and stays red through the whole thing. It goes green the moment he finishes, in the moment the first charges sound from the artillery pointed toward the Senate.
You can feel the percussion clear out on the Mall, and either it or the noise sends a couple of dozen gulls into the air from the pool at the base of the Capitol.
More mittened applause. A boy hollers, "Go Bill!"
Althea Davis has tears in her eyes.
"Wouldn't want to miss it for the world," says the Landover, Md., woman. "It's history. Last inauguration this century."
"Ten years from now they'll appreciate us dragging them out of bed and down here," her mother says. "They'll understand the significance." She turns her face toward the Capitol. The sun has come out.
Photos by Frank Johnston, The Washington Post
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company