As George Walker Bush was sworn in as the nation’s 43rd president, hundreds of thousands of onlookers stood from the front of the capital stretching all the way back to the reflecting pool of the Washington monument. They faced bone-chilling temperatures, rain bordering on sleet and crowds and congestion nearly everywhere to witness the first presidential inauguration ceremony of the new millennium. Yet something about this sacred public occasion of American government brought much of the country together, despite the turmoil during and after the election.
As residents of the city that is also the capital of the country, many Georgetown students found ways to take part in the inauguration. Some obtained tickets to one of the standing areas in front of the capital; others woke up early to stake a claim on Pennsylvania Avenue along the parade route; still others joined protesters from across the country to demonstrate against the incoming president. Each had a different perspective on this occasion that comes about once every four years.
Tickets to one of the four viewing areas in front of the capital were distributed to senators and representatives by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Among the thousands in these fenced off, close-up areas was Catie Sheehan (CAS ’01), whose green tickets granted access to the northeast standing area. She went to the inauguration with a friend who had worked for Senator Mitch McConnell, the chairman of the JCCIC. Her trip began late compared to others; she left at 10 a.m., taking a cab from M Street to Union Station and walking to the Capitol lawn. But she said she could see pretty well what was happening on the stage.
Sheehan who described her self as “not a Republican,” said she still enjoyed the experience. “I thought it was exciting to see everything going on. His speech was well-written, and I was touched that he was crying as he took the oath,” she said.
“It was definitely worth spending the day in the cold and rain.”
Cold and rainy it was: The temperature hovered around freezing with a windchill in the low-20s most of the day. Freezing rain started and stopped, deterring many from showing up at all and leaving those who did attend soggy by the end.
For at least one student, a family member’s connection to the Bush Administration got him VIP treatment at the inauguration. Aaron Thompson (SFS ’03) woke up early to join his aunt, who is the assistant to Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten. They had special passes for staff and family members that provided buses to and from the capital, seats in front of the inaugural podium, buses to the White House following the ceremony and a viewing area for the parade.
From their seats, Thompson and his family observed the entrance of the governors of all 50 states, members of the House and Senate, the outgoing President and Vice President and the Vice President-elect and President-elect. They also clearly heard Bush’s 13-minute speech, which Thompson described as “mercifully brief.”
Following the swearing-in, Thompson’s group moved to the White House where they watched the beginning of the parade. They then moved indoors to a law firm located on Pennsylvania Avenue where they could still watch the parade and enjoy the festivities in heated comfort.
Thompson also attended one of 10 inaugural balls held Saturday evening; his was the Texas-Wyoming Ball, which was held at the Washington Convention Center downtown.
“About ten minutes after we arrived, President Bush showed up, said hello, waved to everyone and talked about the good time he was having. That was really nice,” Thompson said.
Comparing it to the Republic National Convention which he attended over the summer, Thompson said the inauguration was much more poorly organized. “We found it nearly impossible to find a cab, and we expected the city to be a lot more prepared. Hotels had to call in cabs from Virginia; people had to wait nearly an hour to get anywhere; it was a mess.”
Those who didn’t get tickets to the swearing-in ceremony did have the opportunity to watch the inaugural parade along the parade route, which followed Pennsylvania Avenue from the capitol to the White House.
Walking to the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street from Georgetown was not out of the question for Greg Kenny (CAS ’02), who managed to see Bush and Cheney’s motorcade and most of the parade from his vantage point. He also saw a lot of protesters, some of whom were being prevented from entering the public viewing areas by the police.
“The protesters made it more exciting, although I felt bad for Bush. Even though I don’t really like him, that is such a powerfully negative thing for a new president to see,” Kenny said, also noting the homogenous nature of the crowd. “It wasn’t very diverse, although I was amazed at the number of young people there.”
Kenny was a little disappointed by the mood of the inauguration: “Of course the weather put a damper on things, but it all really lacked grandeur. I’m still glad I went, though.”
Ian McClatchey (SFS ’01), a resident assistant in Darnall Hall, and three of his residents made a day out of seeing the parade. The group left campus at 6 a.m., taking a Metrobus downtown. When they arrived approximately an hour and a half later, they were surprised at the small crowds.
“I thought more people would be there that early but there weren’t,” McClatchey said. “We were fortunate to get there when we did because we had plenty of time to find the public entrances and get through the security checkpoints. A lot of other people were confused and later on in the morning the lines got much longer,” McClatchey said.
They ended up finding a spot at the intersection of 15th Street, F Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. From this vantage point, they were able to see the motorcades carrying outgoing President Clinton and President-elect Bush to the capital for the swearing-in ceremony before the parade; they also watched the Bush and Cheney motorcades going to the White House following the ceremony.
McClatchey said security was tight on the part of the route where his group was located. “The police were literally arms-length apart from each other in front of the crowd for as far as I could see,” he said. “And there were four rows of military personnel between us and the parade route. The protection was heavy, probably because there were so many protesters where we were.”
McClatchey speculated that protesters outnumbered Bush supporters two-to-one where he was standing, but that they were fairly well-behaved. He observed the arrest of a protester who was trying to cross one of the security barriers but no other incidents.
When asked why he made such an excursion to the inauguration, McClatchey responded, “You’re in college for four years and you only get to see one of these. Plus, we’re in Washington, which means we’re almost expected to go. This was such a historic kind of inaugural—every branch of the government was involved in making it happen—that I wouldn’t have missed it.”
But when asked if it was worth it, he replied, “Ask me in four years…”
Darnell Brown (CAS ’03) volunteered with 10 other members of the Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service to work for the Department of Health and Human Services as an Emergency Medical Technician. The GERMS members worked in two groups during a 12-hour shift that began at 7:00 a.m.; Brown’s group was stationed at the intersection of 13th Street and E Street, a location which also afforded him the opportunity to see much of the parade as it passed by.
Brown and his fellow technicians treated only eight people, whose complaints were mostly that they were bothered by the combination of cold and rain. They did assist one woman who twisted her ankle in a crowd and who required assistance a few hours later when a protester falling out of a tree injured her other ankle. The second time, however, Brown said the woman refused treatment on the advice of “street medics” who had come with some anti-government protesters.
“There were a lot of protesters around; I don’t think I saw any Bush supporters where I was. If there were any, they were hiding in fear,” he said.
Brown said he heard reports over the radio about a police horse accidentally kicking a bystander and about police tear-gassing some protesters, but he didn’t actually see any incidents between the two groups in his area.
Brown also admitted that he observed the crowds and protesters quite a bit, expressing disappointment at the extremes some of them went to have their message heard on issues ranging from abortion to the environment to the election itself.
“I saw signs that said ‘Hail to the thief!’ which were pretty common. My favorite variation on that said ‘Hail to the Crackhead!’ but I don’t understand why there was no middle ground with them, he said. “They were just mean.”
Protesters turned out in numbers larger than any inauguration since the Vietnam War, using the high-profile inauguration to raise awareness about a variety of issues. Brendan O’Farrell (CAS ’03) did not actively protest but did follow?several groups of protesters throughout the day in order to observe what they did. O’Farrell took the Metro from the Rosslyn station, where he found the lines at the farecard machines 30 to 40 people deep, to the Metro Center station, the closest to Freedom Corner, the main protesting area. Although he could hear applause from the Mall when Bush and Cheney were sworn in, he could neither see nor hear any of the swearing-in ceremony. He and the other protesters were able to watch the parade pass by.
“People were chanting things like, ‘1-2-3-4, Bush is a corporate whore’ and ‘Hail to the Thief,’” O’Farrell said. “There were also a lot of signs protesting Ashcroft and supporting other groups like Free Mumia, Free Tibet, and others.”
O’Farrell took part in the World Bank-IMF protests last spring and compared those to the ones at the inauguration.
“The protesters here were much more disorganized; it seemed like a lot of people really had no idea what they were protesting for or were protesting completely unrelated causes,” he said.
The presence of security near the protesters also left an impression on O’Farrell. He pointed to the ubiquitous yellow ropes, fences, police and military which created a tense atmosphere. These seemingly-harsh elements right across the street from a church with a bell choir performing during the parade created a strange juxtaposition in O’Farrell’s mind.
“It was a neat cultural experience to go to the inauguration, but in terms of the protesters, they just didn’t do a good job getting the word out on their causes,” O’Farrell concluded.
Not everyone on the Hilltop made the journey to the inauguration; some stayed at home and watched it on television or simply caught the news clips of it afterwards.
Caroline Kwok (SFS ’03) watched the swearing-in ceremony and the parade on C-SPAN and CNN from the comfort of a friend’s living room in suburban Maryland. Kwok is originally from Hong Kong but has been studying at Georgetown since last year. She wanted to go to the inauguration in person because she didn’t know when she would have another opportunity to see a presidential inauguration in the U.S. but decided against it in light of the weather. She found many of the festivities interesting.
“If I were an American, I think I would have felt patriotic. I liked what he said in his speech about civic responsibility; in a lot of other countries civic responsibility is just not as important. But he also talked a lot about freedom; sometimes Americans think that America equals freedom and they feel like they have the responsibility to make sure everyone is free. That bothered me a little,” Kwok said.
In regard to the television coverage, Kwok said she was very happy. She got to see all of the swearing-in ceremony and the parade with few obstructions thanks to the network television cameras. CNN and C-SPAN also provided background information on speakers, protocol, dress and security measures. The television stations also seemed to provide fair coverage of both Bush supporters and protesters, Kwok said.
After the swearing-in ceremony, television viewers were able to see the Gore and Clinton families’ arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, where Clinton gave a farewell before departing for home. Coverage also included Bush’s signing of the documents which formally nominated his Cabinet members. Those who went to the events downtown missed the chance to see these two events.
Historical significance and goverment institutions aside, the inauguration still left a sense of awe. That so many people could come together both in support of and in protest of what was happening at the capitol and in our country was amazing. To be standing there in person while the new President addressed the crowd with his ideas for the future is not an everyday experience nor is it easily forgettable. But to come back to the Hilltop after everything was over and to not be surrounded by crowds and red, white and blue everywhere left a sense that things have changed but that they will also still be the same.