Clinton pulls off pageantry of populism, as 'fellow citizens' get the spirit

January 21, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In many ways, Bill Clinton's glittery, four-day journey to the White House picked up where his campaign caravan left off, with the same bus rides and handshakes and made-for-TV moments, all spun this week with the sunshine and blue skies of a winner.

Just as the Clinton team constructed a campaign so consistently on target it even earned praise from then-Vice President Dan Quayle, so it carefully crafted an extravaganza that struck notes of populism and inclusion, poetry and hope like no other inauguration in recent history.

All week, crowds in the hundreds of thousands -- spurred on by sunny weather and the promise of free pageantry -- filled the city wearing saxophone pins and Clinton/Gore baseball caps. Yesterday, about a quarter-million people spilled from the Capitol lawn to the Mall to be there when William Jefferson Clinton took the oath of office.

To be sure, there has been limo-studded gridlock in Washington, too, with special-interest parties in every suite of every hotel, $1,500-a-plate dinners, $1,000-a-ticket celebrity galas. Corporations have doled out loans to bankroll much of the $25 million-plus that has gone into this "people's" celebration.

But as he did so successfully from last January to November, Mr. Clinton managed to edge the exclusive, insider affairs to the background of his celebration week and push into the spotlight his accessibility to, and contact with, regular folk.

There was Mr. Clinton leading a throng across Memorial Bridge as night fell on the city. There was Mr. Clinton with Mister Rogers at the Kennedy Center, answering questions from children about bathrooms in the White House. There was Mr. Clinton having lunch with the "Faces of Hope," the ordinary people he met along the campaign trail whose stories touched him.

There was Mr. Clinton at the bell-ringing, speaking via satellite hook-up to Mission Control in Houston to his friends at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., to a group in San Francisco's Chinatown. There was Hillary Clinton, even Chelsea and her friends, coming over to the Mall to mix briefly with the masses.

In fact, from Sunday's bus ride to the Lincoln Memorial to the opening words of yesterday's inaugural address, "My fellow citizens," this inauguration emphasized at every step of the way that this was a presidency for the people.

Some of that message has been in image and feel more than reality. All but 15 percent of the bleacher seats along the parade route yesterday were occupied by Clinton friends, families and supporters, for instance.

Likewise, the only spectators who could see much of the stage, or much of anything besides trees, at Sunday's all-star concert at the Lincoln Memorial were those who had tickets to seats up front -- friends, family and political supporters of the Clintons and Gores, said an inaugural spokesman. These were the same people allowed to follow Mr. Clinton across the light-strewn Memorial Bridge for the picturesque bell-ringing at the Lady Bird Johnson Circle.

In fact, the best seats for many of the free, open-to-all, events were at home in front of a TV set, some spectators concluded.

Still, something was different this time, say political observers.

"There's a greater sense of excitement than I've ever seen in any previous inauguration," says Daniel Hallin, a professor of politics and media at the University of California San Diego, who watched this week's events on TV. "You do get this feeling of a lot of people gathering, wanting to be a part of it all."

There was a sense of generational change -- evident in everything from the rap and rock music at all of the concerts (last night's MTV ball was the hottest ticket in town) to the emphasis on children -- that was similar to the spirit of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, say historians.

And indeed, Mr. Clinton has invoked the style and memory of his political hero along the way, visiting the slain president's gravesite Tuesday morning, inviting black poet Maya Angelou to deliver a poem at the swearing-in ceremony yesterday -- just as Kennedy enlisted Robert Frost in 1961.

But some political observers note that the feeling of optimism -- one that came through on television, too -- made this inauguration more reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inauguration 60 years ago than any other.

"The events at President Carter's inauguration were pretty populist, too," says Mr. Hallin. "But there wasn't the same sense of change in the country or the excitement about the possibility of turning things around that there is this year. People feel that sense of hope partly because they feel a sense of crisis."

Much as the Clinton team did during the campaign, the Clinton inaugural planners went out of their way to emphasize diversity.

Mr. Clinton broke with tradition, for instance, and became the first president-elect to attend a black church for his Inauguration Day prayer service yesterday morning.

Aware of the poignant symbolism, the Clinton and Gore families attended Washington's Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, a church built with bricks crafted by slaves where leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have spoken. Most president-elects have attended St. John's.

At the swearing-in ceremony, Ms. Angelou read an original work about the common experience of all mankind, while mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne of the Metropolitan Opera sang of "the color of children:" "Red and white and black and yellow, all so different yet the same."

But the theme hardly ended there. Yesterday's parade was a virtual cavalcade of diversity -- the most diverse in presidential history, according to the parade announcer. Following Mr. Clinton down Pennsylvania Avenue were Elvis impersonators, Barney the Dinosaur, a high school band from Hope, Ark., and everything from American Indian veterans to a gay and lesbian group.

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