An inaugural of bells, whistles and big bucks

Sandy Grady

January 19, 1993|By Sandy Grady

MOST were Cadillacs, but there were also Chryslers Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces. The really plush ones were pearl white, over 30 feet long, with telephones and bars.

They were Republican limousines that clogged Pennsylvania Avenue in glittering caravans like a Versailles Palace on wheels.

tTC And in the velvet seats rode the corporate biggies, high rollers and their ladies, wearing enough fur and diamonds to make a Kuwaiti emir jealous.

That was in 1981 at Ronald Reagan's first inaugural, an explosion of ostentatious wealth that heralded the '80s' Decade of Greed.

We called it "The Week The Limos Ate Washington."

Now 12 years later comes the inaugural of Bill Clinton, no high-falutin' movie actor with rich pals but a blue-jeans Arky who hangs out in McDonald's. Thank goodness Mr. Clinton's party won't reek with all that Reagan swag and swagger.

After all, it's a return from exile for Democrats, who as everyone knows are common, lunch-bucket Joes, not country-clubbers. They're happy with a keg of beer, hot dogs, some band music, right? Even the title of the Clinton bash -- "An American Reunion, New Beginnings, Renewed Hope" -- drips with populist idealism.

Well, guess what?

Not much has changed.

Bill Clinton's soiree this week is awash in as many big bucks, limousines and as much jewelry as the glitzy Republican debuts of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

I mean, $15,000 for a seat at an inaugural dinner or $25,000 for a box at the Capital Centre gala isn't slumming.

The price tag on this four-day carnival may top $30 million, more than Mr. Clinton spent to win the presidency. And many of the big corporations that bankrolled the Reagan and Bush extravanganzas will put up the millions for Mr. Clinton's blowout. "I don't know why it should cost so much," said Jimmy Carter, whose 1977 party cost less than $5 million.

Why would Mr. Clinton, Master of Symbolism who rode to the presidency as a small-town guy who felt middle-class pain, become ringmaster of a circus featuring the rich and famous?

One answer is spelled M-O-N-E-Y, the millions in private loot it takes to stage one of these festivals.

So the usual suspects -- Coca-Cola, Boeing, General Electric, Merrill Lynch, Merck, Shell, big Wall Street firms, even labor unions -- gave up-front loans that may not be repaid from sale of tickets and geegaws. Nothing illegal. It's been done that way for 40 years.

Another answer is A-C-C-E-S-S.

Those are the same companies that lobby heavily in Washington on tax, defense and environmental issues. Putting up inaugural cash at least buys a lobbyist's foot in the door of a new admistration.

One embarrassing item was the Kennedy Center gala planned by "Friends of Ron Brown" for the new Commerce secretary. The ex-DNC chairman had interesting friends who'd pay for the festivities -- Sony, Pepsico, Anheuser-Busch, J.C. Penney and Textron.

Mr. Brown, who'd been harried by senators for his lobbying connections to Japanese and other big business, suffered an attack of ethics. He canceled.

More galling is the attempt by Hillary Clinton's brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, to put the arm on top-10 corporations, including Ford, Mobil and Chevron, for $10,000. They promised a dinner-dance skybox, hinting at a presidential handshake.

"I don't see any conflict," Hugh Rodham told the Wall Street Journal. "It's no big deal."

Sort of makes you miss Billy Carter.

The "big deal" is that rich donors can buy cachet with an incoming administration unavailable to Joe Sixpack. It's not only the president's family members who might fuzz the ethical line. Rahm Emanuel, inaugural co-chairman, switches hats Wednesday to be a Clinton assistant for political affairs.

Sure, once the bands tootle down Pennsylvania Avenue and sidewalk mobs roar for strolling Bill & Hillary, cynicism about corporate bucks will fade.

There's undeniably a mood of hope about this political Mardi Gras. Crowds, probably 500,000 for the parade, will be huge by )) Reagan and Bush standards. The excitement is fueled by the youth of Mr. Clinton and Al Gore, Mr. Clinton's sunny confidence, the exultation of something new.

Never mind that Mr. Clinton's honeymoon may peak at his inaugural. A new poll, in which seven of 10 Americans see Mr. Clinton favorably, shows 58 percent think he's backing off campaign promises.

"We're seeing the seeds of a negative cloud over Clinton's head," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

That's why Mr. Clinton's symbolic acts -- his bus ride from Monticello, the ringing bells, the open White House -- are plotted to give him momentum as a different kind of president.

But only the party labels change. There'll be the same traffic jam of white stretch limos. Same guys in the back seats puffing two-dollar cigars.

Bill Clinton's going to have the biggest, glitziest inaugural American corprations can buy.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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