Fear & Loathing on the Inaugural Trail
One Man's Road Trip to the White House Confirms More Than It Denies
The great thing about presidents is their vulnerability. Nothing is easier than ripping on a new, sitting, or departing president, and supporters and impugners alike should feel relieved that the hottest and brightest spotlight in the world will never be turned on them.
With his bumbling speech, inappropriate sniggering, and looks of confusion, George W. Bush may be the easiest target ever to blow snot rockets into an Oval Office wastebasket. But it's hard to know what to think, and talking to Austinites isn't terribly revealing either. In this town, haters seem to outnumber supporters, but the haters are more vocal, so who really knows? Republicans do well to keep their opinions to themselves in a moderate-to-liberal city like Austin, and conservatives on the whole aren't exactly convinced that talking about something ever changed much, so there's not a hell of a lot of reasoned debate on the subject.
What does the rest of the country think about this guy? Polls are what they are, but I prefer talking to individuals when I want to get a handle on public opinion. So when a friend offered me the opportunity to take the country's temperature on GWB, I couldn't say no. I never said I was a scientist.
Shay Jones (college friend and a private party services manager for local production company Direct Events) told me his wife Blair's company would give us tickets to some inaugural events if we could find our way to Washington, D.C. I offered to drive there with him so we could see the countryside and do some tourism on the way. I could conduct an informal and inaccurate poll through the intervening states and, God willing, maybe such a monumental security breach would occur that I would be able to realize a longstanding dream: to hump the president's leg on television. And Shay wanted to thank Bush personally for the Secret Service's theft of three potato guns from under the Austin Music Hall stage before an event for the then-governor. They called it a weapons confiscation, but who's kidding whom?
Shay's soul mate and business partner Charlie Jones was booking Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for the Thursday Texas party and flying into D.C. Wednesday night. It doesn't suck to know the band, even on a fourth-cousin level like this, and Shay and Charlie know how to live it up when they get together, which is too often. "Put your shoes on" is a rallying cry I dread, but it is the order of the day when Chuck and Buck(ethead, Shay's real name) see a reluctant look on my face. Fortunately, these two emanate some kind of charmed sphere that repels death and police when they're together. If you stay close you can get inside it.
So off we went. We spent the night on Beale Street (and some of it in our hotel room) in Memphis, Tenn., a street so like our own Sixth Street in so many ways, but in many ways not: It's all packed into about five or six blocks, almost exclusively blues clubs; you can drink on the street as long as you have a plastic cup; there are trash barrels every six to eight feet or so along the sidewalks; and most importantly, no minors allowed anywhere. I don't know what kind of fascist curfew makes this possible, but I think Austin needs one very badly. I only wish we had gotten to Beale Street on any night but the slowest of the year, as we shared the whole street with about 18 other people.
Thus began a week without much sleep. Whether it was late-night carousing or just taking a wrong turn and heading toward Florida for a while that sabotaged us, we managed to average about six or fewer hours a night, which may be enough for some but is about an hour and a half too few for me.
Shay's Uncle Steve and Aunt Marcy put us up in Arlington when we got to the D.C. area, providing a nice place to stay and maps, metro guides, and even an escort to the Arlington Men's Wearhouse (I'm smart enough to put a suit near my hanging bag, just not in it) an hour and a half before I needed to look presentable.
It's good. Change is good. I don't love him, but that's what life is like: some hope, some disappointment.
-- Strangely eloquent D.C. Sheraton bartender fresh from Guatemala, on the question, "How do you like our new president?"
I voted for Nader. I don't vote based on likelihood of success, I don't generally like or trust public officials, and I'm wary of anyone who wants to be president. It's like saying you want to be Jesus. At least Ralph seemed like he felt dirty about campaigning. I'm even warier of someone who has wanted to be the president since he was a kid, like our last one. And W.? Former drunk. Kinda goofy. May or may not have arranged to avoid active duty in Vietnam (easy to accuse, near impossible to confirm or deny). A little sketchy at a podium with lights and cameras (actually, that's one of the few areas most of us identify with; rock stars and actors are the only ones who can really identify with Clinton's podium style). Pro-business. Bad oil executive (never struck oil). Worst of all for many, he's a Bush, and that means rich, connected, privileged.
Regardless of all else, W. is correctly characterized as pro-business, anti-abortion, somewhat isolationist as far as foreign policy goes, and ambivalent toward the environment (Remember standing on Mount Bonnell and not being able to see the air, just what was behind it? I do). Well, business is shaky but not so much in Texas. Abortion? I always wonder how I'd feel about abortion if I were religiously inclined, if I actually believed that abortion was murder. It may be that neither side of this issue can ever afford to appear so weak as to work with the other toward what must be their common goal. Bush sure pulled the foreign funding away on Day 1, but not even he is crazy enough to think a straight overturn of Roe v. Wade is possible.
The environment? Watch out. You'd be amazed how much opinions differ on ozone problems (some scientists believe the space shuttle burns up .25% of the ozone layer each time it goes up, and some scientists say there is no ozone problem whatsoever), global warming, rain forest damage, and the like. People like Bush tend to believe Chicken Little is in full cry and that self-regulation works. Fat chance. And, well, foreign policy. Bush has either the hot rod of all foreign policy machines or a global wrecking ball, depending on your level of paranoia (some is always better than none, kids). I tend to believe that while militaristic, the Bush team has at least the knowledge of what's possible, and in my experience nobody hates war more than soldiers.
I think he's the devil. I'm totally scared. But seriously, man, these inaugural parties are never this cool. They're usually much stuffier and everybody's networking. Is this what parties are like in Austin?
-- Jeff, young Democrat and Washington worker bee, at the Carmen Group's Thursday Texas Bash at Club 5
Yes, Jeff, parties in Austin are loud, drunken affairs with flashing lights and lasers piercing the darkness with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the center. The only difference is that we have trained swing dancers in Austin and are spared the interpretive stylings of normally sober and hard-working white people loosening up for the first time in four years.
Some people would tell you that BBVD was the best part of the Thursday night party, and others would say it was free drinks and nice hors d'oeuvres, but I'd say that watching two young Washington hipsters fumble the surreptitious cocaine-vial relay baton pass and the ensuing white explosion on the scored concrete floor was better, and even better than that was their expression change, from horror to hide-the-evidence to pretend nonchalance in three seconds. Nice work, boys. Love your stylish sideburns.
I got lost on my way back to Aunt Marcy's house. Again. I left Shay and Charlie to fend for themselves since Chucky had a nice room at the National Sheraton.
Near 1pm, I drove back to the Sheraton and found them at the bar nursing bad cheeseburgers and iced tea, Charlie's baggage on the floor near his stool as he waited for his afternoon flight. As they struggled with their lunches, I learned that they had spent the night before representing Texas in the "Drink a Bunch of Liquor & Act Like a Fool Pro-Am Invitational." Apparently there is a way for determined people to find beer in a hotel after 3am as long as you don't misinterpret the fact that it's delivered by security.
I had forgotten how much abuse Shay can take. No sooner were we back at Aunt Marcy's house than he showered and we caught the Orange Line in to the Mall. The D.C. Metro train system experience is punctuated by what must be an art -- mumbling into a microphone in such a way that a piercingly loud noise comes out but nobody can understand a word. Seems efficient enough, well lit, and the riders are very well trained. Wonder how much it costs. It is most definitely a great alternative to driving in this town. You think I-35 has short on-ramps? You'd better take a look at D.C. Unexpected cloverleaf exits, nonexistent on-ramp lanes (not even a foot of your own lane as you merge at speed), and confusing interchanges make for an exciting drive.
Nighttime in D.C., even in shitty, cold weather like this, is beautiful. All the buildings are lit, there's magic in the air, and watching the massive inaugural setup crew work is nice because it's not us working hard in the wet cold. As we tried to sneak up close to the Capitol building where the oath will be taken, we noticed four black-clad men in rappelling gear on the outside of the dome, rigging some kind of sniper station, or maybe a bucket of blood to dump on Bush's head. A South Carolina teacher on vacation was nice enough to lend us the zoom on his ancient handicam. Closer inspection of the secret agents on the dome revealed nothing. When we said goodbye to head home and rest up for the big day tomorrow, the teacher had one piece of advice: "Don't try to sit on Lincoln's lap at the monument. They don't like that."
Deeemocraaats, Deemocraaaats, where are you? I just love arguin' with Democrats, and I always win. Come on, where are you?
-- Crazy drunk guy walking along the inaugural parade route with a look on his face I last saw working in an emergency room treating pugilistic drunks
Experienced travelers will tell you that preparation is the key to attending large-scale events such as the inauguration. On Saturday morning, Shay and I got up late, forgot our gloves and hats, raced to the Metro station only to wait an hour in the Farecard machine lines with the other knuckleheads, and walked out of the wrong station just in time for Shay to hear the last 10 words of the 35-word oath of office on his Walkman-style radio. Nice. It's about 20 degrees with wind chill and raining. We follow the crowd toward Pennsylvania Avenue and go through a police bag check like the one a few blocks away where the cops will crack some heads an hour or so later (all we saw were riot cops running that way) and walk toward the parade route.
I wanted to meet and observe protesters near the grandstand set aside for them, right between 14th and 13th streets on Pennsylvania Avenue, and walking toward them we realized that a) the groovy eighth-floor parade party we had tickets for was across the street, b) we couldn't cross the street unless we got back on the Metro and got out at a different stop, and c) the parade was probably about to start. Thus began two of the most miserable hours of my life, waiting and shivering in the winter mix on windy Penn. Even the protesters were unwilling to make much of a ruckus and signs were melting and running right and left in the rain.
"Hey hey, ho ho, Bush and Cheney got to go," was the order of the day, although something that sounded a lot like "Schlemeil, Shlemozzel, Hassenpfeffer Incorporated" (or whatever) from Laverne & Shirley made multiple appearances. The only really clear chants I could hear came when Rudy Giuliani showed up about 12 feet behind us in the D.C. mayor's private box, an enclosed and very warm-looking area raised up on a six-foot platform. Rudy looked pretty damned healthy as he smiled, waved, and took pictures of the people screaming "Nazi Giuliani! Nazi Giuliani!"
As protests go, the signs were decent ("Pigfucker," "George W. Bush has never specifically denied eating babies," and "George Bush the Bungle Headed Dead Brain Talking" (?) were my favorites, while Shay preferred "Fuck Bush" and "NO") and the spirit was there, but the flesh was weak and the revolving-door speaker policy drew mixed reviews from the stands. Some of the speakers were able to get the crowd on their feet and yelling, but almost all of the angry young males who ended up with a mike in their hands quickly resorted to pointless cursing and incoherent sputtering rage (at least two of them got stuck in the "Fuckin' Loop," as in, "And fuckin' George Bush is just a fuckin' ... a fuckin' ... fuckin' ... ASSHOLE!"), and it didn't take much of that before the stands were quiet and the protesters were ignoring the speaker. Rabble is not easily roused when it's low 30s and wet, sonny, so break out your A material and keep it short.
Another puzzling thing about the protesters was their indiscriminate nature. They booed everything that went by them, from cop cars and motorcycles (silly, but understandable), to tour buses carrying VIPs to their seating areas (okay, okay ...) to event coordinators in golf carts (ridiculous, and they liked it, too, which made it worse), to fur-clad women dumb enough to walk the eight-foot-wide hate gauntlet right in front of the protester stands (hilarious -- most of the protesters looked like they'd wear it on the spot).
I've never seen so many cops as I did on Pennsylvania Avenue before the inaugural parade. I could literally see a thousand or so Pennsylvania State Police, U.S. National Guardsmen, and riot cops in two blocks of that street. We all tried baiting them to some degree ("Pennsylvania has shitty Mexican food!" was all I could muster), but they were appropriately caught up in the moment.
And after W. and his crew paused before us to let some space develop so they could race by the protester stands, we realized that instead of sacrificing our comfort for a close look at the motorcade, we had done it for practically nothing but the right to say we had suffered while everyone we knew was safe under a blanket at home. The worst part about the experience, really, was that every once in a while we'd look up at the balcony right across the street where the party was and sigh longingly, imagining the warmth, the food, the drink, the view ... what kind of soup I was going to put my hands in when we got there.
We never made it.
I don't [like Bush]. I wanted McCain. I don't like Bush at all, and I voted for Gore even though I'm a Republican.
-- Nice older man in Cozymel's Very
Mexican Restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn.
Sadly, we never had a chance to hump Bush's leg, and we're not going to get one. The Black Tie & Boots Ball will not be graced by Mike and Shay tonight, and who cares, really? So far everyone we've talked to seems relieved for us when we mentioned that we didn't have tickets. "12,000 people in a room for half that many," they said. "An hour to check your coat, and another hour to get it back." Oh well. I really wanted to meet Pierce Bush. He's a funny little fat kid who already, at age 11, is a better public speaker than his Uncle George. If we could only get him and James Carville together on the Today Show ...
That night, exhausted though we were, snow and streetlights lured us out for a stroll around the neighborhood, where we made a small pornographic snowman. Arlington has had its share of crime, and we were on our way to the Thai restaurant (where rival Thai gangs had held a shootout a few weeks before) when we ran into LaCopa, an "Argentine Beef House" on the Lee Highway. Tejano-style music thumped out through the closed windows and we had to check it out, since Argentina is where they have the kind of meat-grilling orgies I fantasize about: In some restaurants there are red and green lights at your table: Green means bring me some of whatever comes off the grill next ... and besides it was cold.
A band with a Jennifer Lopez-lookalike frontwoman kept the couples on the dance floor while we sat at the bar and ordered some food. If you've never had a platter heaped with French fries, cut-up hot dogs, grilled beef, Argentine sausage (pale nuggets without casing), un-asked-for blood sausage, sautéed onions, tomatoes and jalapeños, au jus, and a hard-boiled egg, then you just haven't had Pique la Copa. And like almost every other first-generation immigrant we asked on this trip, everyone at La Copa seemed to think Bush would make a fine president. But he's against immigration, I baited the bartender. "He's against illegal immigration, and so am I," he responded with a look of disgust and pity. Probably thinking how sad to be from here, and yet still so unappreciative of my Eden that I don't care to defend it. I just know there are Bush haters in this town, if I could only find them. Maybe my Houston, Texas, hat with the Texas-flag-colored longhorn is chasing them away.
I don't care. I didn't vote.
-- Everyone in Harrah's riverboat casino in Vicksburg, Miss.
We drove away from D.C. the next morning after a jaunt around the monuments in the snow on Sunday morning. It really is a beautiful and inspiring place to visit. You feel like you can sense the machinery of government behind those building facades, and on the first full day of a presidency, you know it's pumping like crazy. Too bad we've got three days of driving ahead of us, with only the Mississippi and gambling to console us about the end of the trip.
Certain Alabama highway convenience stores are best known for two things: fireworks and racist T-shirts. My favorite showed Robert E. Lee against a Dixie flag in midwave, with a row of Civil War cannons beneath him. Above him the cursive script read, "Our guns may be silenced ..." and below, "... but our cause will never die!" I was in the process of buying one when I realized that while tastelessness can be funny, and offensive things can be funny, and even Nazis can be funny, there's nothing so funny about the Confederate "cause" that anyone I know would wear the damn thing as a joke.
George W. Bush has been called a racist, and while there are certainly those whose standards leave all whites on the wrong side of that line, he reminds me of any of a couple hundred guys I met at UT around the frat scene. There is a breed of Southern men whose privileged upbringings seem to have provided them with enough servants to leave in them traces of a kind of weird etiquette they slip into around minorities. It seems harmless, almost overly polite and attentive really, but it may be something that rankles instinctively when detected. Is he an actual bad-guy racist? Not even the Shadow knows stuff like that.
Political activism seems to be less and less related to logical analysis these days, and I'm sure anyone with a journalism degree could successfully paint any public figure any color and stripe they want. Public figures in the 21st century didn't get where they are by revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and Bush will not be blazing any trails in that direction.
And George W. Bush knows the importance of denial better than any of us. Without denial, the sheer unlikelihood of the position he has gotten himself into would crush Bush's skull like Gallagher on PCP. That is not to say he can't do the job, even do it well. But he is, to me, completely imponderable. I just wish I could be watching Nader carving up the U.S. government with his Sword of Righteousness right now. Man, that would be sweet.
Good luck to us all in the next four years, and especially you, Georgie. Believe me, we're watching very closely.