Inside the Capitol last night the annual great American political Kabuki starring the president, Congress and the media went off exactly as planned -- while outside strutted and fretted and spun an equally theatrical production called "The Sorry State of the Union."
The white dome gleaming in spotlights looked like one of those network television studio backdrops as the punk band 1905 took the stage at the Reflecting Pool.
"Just because I can't change everything," the lead singer shouted in a song that bespeaks the faith of the thousand or more who gathered, "doesn't mean I can't change anything!"
There were prebuttals and rebuttals to President Bush's speech, while a 14-foot screen showed video collages of warplanes, corporate logos, oil derricks, Ronald McDonald, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, bombed cities, dead bodies and the question: "Is this the world you want?"
The most surreal moment came when Bush started speaking inside, and outside his fuzzy pink face spread across the screen, lips moving silently. The words of his speech crawled in captions across the bottom, while music by the Clash and Bob Marley blasted over the Mall. The crowd scoffed when the president said, "There is never a day when I do not learn of another threat."
Two flags flew over the Capitol to show that both houses of Congress were in session. But were they listening to those outside? Nine television news crews showed up with microwave trucks, so the demonstrators hoped that word would get out.
There was talk of "no war for oil," but tall propane space heaters were welcome if inadequate protection against the freezing weather. Guitar players felt their fingers go numb.
"We want to let the American people know we're not all just sitting watching the president on TV," said Adam Eidinger, an organizer with the Shirts Off Coalition -- a group of Greens, anticapitalists and other left-leaning activists who say economic problems and the war buildup are related because: "Bush is taking the shirts off our backs to pay for this war."
"We want to make sure the American people know that people are thinking critically and they have an alternative to the Bush agenda," Eidinger said. Various peace groups sponsored the event.
In a city where demonstrations are a way of life, protests of the State of the Union address are rare, if not unprecedented. The National Park Service has not been asked to grant a permit for one in the last five years for which records exist.
Last night's spectacle was different from the usual displays of dissent. It wasn't exactly a rally, or a rock concert, or a march. It was a hybrid that organizers stitched together with satiric and serious video clips. Also on the bill was the Green Party's "response" to the State of the Union.
From start to finish, it was a sometimes brilliant, sometimes ragged piece of political performance art. It wouldn't have worked without the foil of the establishment theater going on inside the domed building.
The State of the Union is itself highly ritualized political performance art. The House sergeant-at-arms sounds Elizabethan as he heralds the arrival of the commander in chief. While the vice president, in his big chair, seems to slumber with his eyes open, the president's soliloquy follows strict rules. The last innovation came in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan perfected the homey salute to carefully planted real Americans in the gallery. At the end, God's blessing is requested, the scene cuts to Statuary Hall for the dueling spin doctors, then network correspondents sum up it all up in ways that never quite match your own impressions sitting at home.
Not that the message doesn't matter. A year ago President Bush uttered the phrase "axis of evil," which helped define the nation's foreign-policy priorities. The best political performance art always has a message.
Before the performance, the artists outside spoke of the effort to get their message across.
"One of the ways you can measure the pulse of a social movement is by whether it is actually producing music," said David Rovics, a folk singer from Boston.
He is one of the troubadours of the twin crusades against "corporate globalization" and U.S. military intervention. The logo on his Web site shows a guitar with its neck morphed into a clenched fist.
After 9/11, he wrote a song called "Hang a Flag in the Window," with the chorus:
So hang a flag in the window
And all hail to the chief
Follow the leader
And suspend your disbelief
Our country right or wrong
You know what to do
Sing God bless America
Oh that red, white and blue.
Mr. Lif, a hip-hop artist from Berkeley, Calif., on the bill last night, recently cut an album, "Emergency Rations," with a song called "Home of the Brave." He sang it a cappella last night:
Bush disguises blood lust as
Convincing the living to love
"Operation Let's Get 'Em" . . .
America supported the Taliban
To get Russia out of Afghanistan
That's how they got the arms, man.
"Music is incredibly powerful and does end up having an impact on people," Mr. Lif said. "If not open the minds of people, then put an example out there of someone who's trying to offer some alternative."
Bush was cast as a vicarious player in the protest performance. Last year's State of the Union was lampooned in a piece by videographers from Guerrilla News Network -- GNN, not CNN. They edited the clip to show the clapping and cheering lawmakers standing and sitting, standing and sitting, in comical rapid-fire ovations for the leader.
The videographers also found a physical or existential likeness between Bush and the ominous grinning, banjo-playing boy in the movie "Deliverance," whose performance they intercut with last year's speech.
When Bush came on the screen giving this year's speech, Thievery Corporation played politically charged tunes, including one from its recent album, a song called -- how perfect -- "The State of the Union." Vocalist Sleepywonder sang:
It's the State of the Union address
Broadcasting lies on the television screen
Trying to get us hooked on your American dream
We up on your games if you know wha' me mean
Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation said political performance can still make a difference. "It's an opportunity to stop what probably is going to be a slaughter just like 1991."
In between the music and art, the stage functioned as the protesters' statuary hall. Speakers responding to Bush included representatives from Peace Action, Veterans for Common Sense and Code Pink (the women's peace vigil in Lafayette Square).
Natalie Johnson Lee, a Minneapolis city council member, was chosen to give the Green Party response because she is an elected official -- there are 170 elected Greens in America -- and because she is a dynamic speaker who is African American and from the heartland, perhaps dispelling some stereotypes about party membership, said a party spokesman.
She came on stage as Bush concluded.
"The State of the Union is lonely in the neighborhood of nations," she said.
"Who called President Bush and asked for this war? . . . I know the American people did not dial that number. . . . I've got a message for the CEOs of the oil corporations and of the weapons manufacturers. You're tying up the line. America is trying to get through."
Rising behind her was the shining Capitol, with all those people inside now looking for cameras -- also trying to talk to America.