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  • President Clinton addresses the crowd.
    Gerald Martineau /
    The Washington Post

    A Very Civil Ceremony

    By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page D01

    It was a best-behavior inauguration.

    A Republican served as the gracious emcee for the Democratic president. The sun came out as if on cue. The crowds along the parade route waited, in some spots, nearly two hours for the president to come doodling along, and yet as they waited they did not complain or whimper. It was like an outbreak of that "civil society" that everyone keeps talking about.

    No drunks, no psychos, no nasty politicians. This was a Super Bowl without the gamblers, mobsters, morons with face paint. America: Land of the Free, Home of the Well-Behaved.

    Even Bill Clinton—pardon, William Jefferson Clinton—was on his best behavior. His speech was brilliantly brief. When he stopped talking the crowd sat in stunned silence, unable to believe that the much-predicted, much-dreaded stemwinder had not come to pass. The Mount Everest emergency survival gear would not be needed. Clinton clocked in at 22 minutes. Usually he can talk for 22 minutes just on rural literacy initiatives.

    The content was also well behaved, stuffed with hope and optimism and goodwill toward all humankind. There was vapor there, some gas, but Clinton did everyone a favor by making only one, attenuated reference to that bridge he's building. He didn't go through a laundry list of policy proposals. He did not claim to be the master of the world or the single hope of mankind. He did not ask the citizenry to address him henceforth as "Caesar." Clinton didn't even seem to ad-lib, sticking to the script like a good boy. Someone should do a DNA test to verify that this was the real Clinton.

    There was some griping in various sectors about vantage points. Not everyone had the Barbara Walters seat, up there on the podium with John Warner (did she have a hidden camera somewhere in her hair?). Most of the people present did not have the prized purple tickets, or orange tickets, or blue or red. Green and yellow tickets meant you had to stand and peek through distant trees at the molecule-size president. But even this was better than the gray zone, out there beyond the Reflecting Pool—way out toward Lincoln himself. Binoculars would hardly work from such a spot. You needed the Hubble.

    In the "Northeast Standing" area—blue tickets—one could find the Friends of the Friends of Hillary—FOFOH. This is an actual group from Chicago, folks like Susie McNamara, who is a friend of Betsy Ebeling, who went to school with the first lady. Vicki Martin, however, is not a member of the Friends of the Friends of Hillary.

    "No, I'm a Friend of Hillary," Martin said proudly.

    Everything's a hierarchy.

    Way out on the Mall, the first lady's outfit served as a beacon, something to home in on among the sea of black overcoats.

    "I could see Hillary in her pink," said Lisa Primer, 13, who had a vantage point out near West Virginia.

    "You could just see a pink blob," said her friend Adrienne Catrambone.

    But this was all right with them. They are eighth-graders from Glenview, Ill. They were completely impressed. And they noticed the best-behavior thing.

    "Everyone says please and thank you," said Lisa.

    "You'd think that everyone would be more pushy," said Adrienne.

    "Everyone is so kind and gracious," said Lisa.

    "Let's not get carried away!" chimed in the chaperon, Lara Levy.

    With binoculars, one could see the collected government of the nation bunched together, Republicans and Democrats, the Supreme Court, the Clinton and Gore kids. There were familiar faces in the crowd. Here's Carl Lewis, the track star:

    "I liked when he talked about inclusiveness," Lewis said. "That's what teamwork is all about."

    Johnnie Cochran obliged everyone seeking his autograph, and there were many such seekers, mobbing him as he left the Capitol. He obliged, too, a question about the second O.J. Simpson trial.

    "This judge, there's a good chance he's committed reversible error," Cochran said. Such as allowing testimony from a women's shelter apparently telephoned by Nicole Simpson before her death. "Ito kept that out. That is hearsay," Cochran said.

    What a great country—inaugurate a president and get O.J. trial updates.

    The parade later in the day proved that America still has a lot of marching bands. Clinton has been criticized for never having served in the military, but he did once serve in a band. On the campaign trail he invited almost every marching band he saw. He's the Band Dweeb in Chief.

    Brad Thomas showed up with a banner saying REPENT. He's a minister with Christ's Bride Ministries. But he said he wouldn't be disruptive, and would be lucky to get close enough to even see the president's limousine.

    "There's very little danger of my being seen or heard," he said.

    The president ran late. An announcer tried to keep the crowd amused with trivia questions.

    John Quincy Adams was the first president to go to his inauguration in long pants instead of knickers. Fact.

    Eventually the president and first lady came by, initially buried inside the tinted windows of their limousine, which in turn was surrounded by bodyguards and a swarm of media trucks. It was not a magical sight, but it didn't make anyone anxious, at least.

    Opera singer Jessye Norman opened the swearing-in ceremony with "Amazing Grace."
    James M. Thresher /The Post
    For a day, cynicism retreated in Washington. For a day everyone was the Honorable this or that. Congress took a break for a day from the ethics case against the Honorable Newt Gingrich. No one talked about the president dropping his pants in strange places. No Republican invited as his guest anyone claiming to be a former Clinton mistress. Surely it came as a relief to everyone that the chief justice, called forward to swear in the president, did not suddenly say to Clinton, "You have the right to remain silent‚.‚.‚."

    The country is not at war. The economy putters along. The Dow is staring at 7,000. Crime, absurdly prevalent though it may be, is down. The biggest political news is of scandals that in many other nations beset by routine corruption would be viewed as trivial.

    Jessye Norman set the tone with her medley of classic American songs. No soul could be so jaded as to remain unmoved by Norman's "Amazing Grace." Grace: not the kind of thing one associates with Washington, usually.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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