Presidential inaugurations are a peculiar combination of civic ecstasy and the celebration of raw power--like enthralled high-school students on field trips watching a Soviet May Day-style parade for corporate democracy. There's the ostentatious swearing-in ceremony, the Pennsylvania Avenue procession of floats, marching bands and military hardware, the sharpshooters on the roofs, and the stretch limos pulling up to a bazillion-dollars-per-ticket gala inaugural ball.

All these festivities are a self-congratulatory public reminder that "We Are The Greatest Government In The History Of The World." Privately, meanwhile, Inauguration Day is a series of wild parties for whichever clique will be pillaging taxpayers for the next four years. For more sober observers, it's all just a reminder that while you can watch once every four years for a few hours, Washington power is really an ongoing series of parties to which you're not invited.

All modern-day U.S. inaugurations, regardless of the victorious party, are like this.

Protesters confront the passing
presidential limo.


George W. Bush's 2001 bash, however, had a third element, an uninvited and largely unreported one, as studiously ignored by other party-goers as a loudly drunk neighbor the hosts hope will simply go home. Among the estimated 300,000 people that gathered in the light rain at the Capitol and along Pennsylvania Avenue, tens of thousands of people expressed their belief that the whole thing was a fraud. It was the largest inaugural protest since Nixon. In 1973, anti-inaugural crowds, assembling far away from the parade, were swelled by a well-organized movement angered by an unpopular war. This year, there was no such organization and Dubya hadn't even had a chance to step in the Oval Office with his new boots yet.

But the protesters came from near and far, and, unlike 1973, they could get up close to Pennsylvania Avenue--thanks to a 1997 court ruling allowing anti-abortion groups access to Bill Clinton's parade. This year at least 20 mostly obscure groups planned protests. They announced five different, distinct locations (or just "along Pennsylvania Avenue") at which confused anti-Bush citizens could assemble.

Only five weeks earlier, Al Gore's supporters, buoyed by the Florida Supreme Court ruling, believed they'd be the ones marching and partying. Instead, they were shivering, waving signs like "Count My Vote" and "Hail to the Thief," marginalized by the pervasive security and uninterested networks. Alongside them were many others concerned about a variety of issues that transcended Gore and Bush. The dozens of causes all melded into one message, unmistakably delivered in block after block of the parade route: As president, Bush has no right to pursue the right-wing policies he wants. He is, according to the words of one memorable sign, the illegitimate son.

It was difficult to gauge the actual size of the anti-Bush demonstrations, and so mostly the networks, reporters and pundits didn't even try. They were content to mention it in passing, like some unfortunate, unavoidable irritant--and content to get comments from appalled Bush supporters and to adopt the Republican thesis that these were "sore losers." If so, the losers were everywhere, making up a large percentage, and in many places a majority, of the crowd.

In Bush's uninspiring, meandering, flatly delivered inaugural speech--evoking nothing so much as a teen-ager rendering the homework assignment his clueless father penned late the previous night--he mentioned citizens sometimes seeming to "share a continent, not a country," a reference that could as easily refer to his divisive policy proposals. That was the new president's only gesture toward Americans embittered by the way he won the election. If anything, the prominent ceremonial role played by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), husband of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and the primary architect of all opposition to campaign finance reform, suggested Dubya's contempt for the entire topic of electoral reform, and a fundamental lack of concern for "healing."

The parade route was littered with people who will remember that lack of concern. As the Bushes rode and then walked up Pennsylvania Avenue, they passed solidly pro-Bush bleachers (these were the paid tickets, at $50 and up), alternating with blocks that were either mixed or--especially close to the White House--solidly anti-Bush. Somehow, this became, according to one radio reporter, "hundreds of protesters"; according to most others, a few thousand. The Washington Post managed to work in the familiar reference to protesters' piercings. But the anti-Bush signs were much more widespread, and their bearers more demographically varied, than most inaugural coverage suggested.

The inauguration's unprecedented heavy security--the Secret Service surrounded the parade route with ten security checkpoints all parade-goers had to pass through--was mounted in large part because nobody knew what to expect. As it turned out, the massive police presence was unnecessary, and the protests were exactly as advertised: an almost entirely peaceful display of opposition to Bush. Somehow, the lack of conflict between police and protesters, and the lack of prominent names attached to their cause, made the protesters' message less important to reporters.

Such dismissiveness both missed the point and the significance of the demonstrations, and starkly showed how difficult it will be for citizen groups alarmed by one or another Bush policy in the next four years to be heard. With the exception of the National Organization for Women--which comprised a boisterous pro-choice cluster between 8th and 9th Streets--the traditional Democratic Party constituencies one would expect to protest both the election and Bush's prospective policies were strikingly absent. There was no labor or environmental presence at all. Even vocal election critics like Jesse Jackson had taken a pass; before his personal scandal erupted, Jackson had planned to attend a rally in Tallahassee, far away from the cameras.

Instead, the election-themed protesters were mobilized through the Internet by vaporous "groups" like and, entities that had never met face-to-face and had come together expressly for the purpose of protesting the inauguration. Further to the left, organizers like the Justice Action Movement, the International Action Center and the media celebrity Rev. Al Sharpton helped bring people to Washington. But they sported few, if any, "followers" in the traditional sense.

The lack of organizational backing made these protests more impressive, not less. There was no legislation pending, no war raging, no recession (so far). And all the "sponsors" did was provide permits. Yet tens of thousands of dissenters found their way to Washington on their own volition, and without any apparent policy goal beyond the desire to display opposition to a regime that had not yet even taken office. And in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, thousands more also protested.

Opponents of Dubya's policies will remember this--and they will remember that after having the election yanked out from under them, congressional Democrats have displayed almost no opposition to an array of Bush cabinet nominees that is anything but moderate and bipartisan. There is a potentially powerful movement brewing. But nobody is harnessing it, and nobody in power is championing it. Yet.


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