Twenty years ago on January 20th, 1993 I stood on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. bearing witness to the inauguration of our nation’s 42nd president. On this sunny, brisk day, while seemingly the last person in the back of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, I felt enormous pride as the awesome transfer of power in this great nation was executed brilliantly, bloodlessly, and humbly with the final words “So help me God” coming from the lips of the former Governor of Arkansas. Equally, I was overcome with a colossal sense of dread, anger, and confusion wondering how we could have lost this campaign.
How did America say “no” to such a loyal, honorable statesman and heroic American in President George H. W. Bush, and “yes” to a smooth talking governor of a state ranking at the bottom in every conceivable criteria, with zero foreign policy experience, and a personal character and sense of duty that was persistently questioned? I was too naïve and idealistic to realize that America, or at least just enough Americans, just didn’t care anymore about such issues. The world was changing. American attitudes were both evolving and devolving, and what many of us understood as traditional America was becoming, in campaign speak, a source of ridicule.
Standing there that Wednesday afternoon as a recently unemployed press staffer of the Bush-Quayle ’92 Campaign, the sting of the November 3rd loss was fading away. I know many mistakes were made inside that campaign headquarters just a few blocks from where I stood, but the media, as well as some fellow Republicans, didn’t reserve their blame for campaign incompetence just for those at the top. As one of the lowest ranking paid campaign staffers I was stunned to read a front page story in the Washington Post a week after the election in which former Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs Ed Derwinski was blasting the campaign as rife with, “Too many amateurs!” And, as an example of this amateurish operation he pointed to the campaign’s Open Letter to Bill Clinton questioning his travels in 1969-70, penned by yours truly, which ran in all the local newspapers for former Soviet Bloc nationalities in America.
To Secretary Derwinski, who joined the campaign as head of the Eastern-European American Coalition, he felt that this was mudslinging and refused to attach his name to it. To me, it was a work of scripted art, a veritable attaque au fer of ink to blunt the advance of a counter-culture presidential hopeful. I was 24-years-old and had been tapped by my boss to be the cutting wordsmith and opinion-writing jouster for various coalition groups for Bush-Quayle ‘92. Twenty years later, I could see that the Secretary was right, I was nothing but a mudslinging amateur.
However, I was not too arrogant, even back then, to fail to comprehend the important, historical significance of this moment on Inauguration Day. We lost in a brutal campaign and now I was watching the victor accept the spoils. Like the losing baseball team that sits silently in the dugout watching their opponents rush the field in celebration after game 7 of the World Series, I had this perverse desire to witness it all. I was just grateful to live in the United States of America.
That morning I walked past the White House wondering what my good friend, Assistant Press Secretary Sean Walsh, was doing in there on his last day of work after faithfully serving George H.W. Bush since he was the Vice President. What is anyone doing in there as a transfer of enormous power takes place?
The morning papers ran stories about the new Clinton team frantically clogging the White House switchboards at the last minute trying to organize the transition and asking a slew of rudimentary questions. “Where were they weeks ago?” griped an outgoing White House staffer. Indeed, the first meeting of the Clinton White House was to take place at 3:30 PM Inauguration Day, but nobody knew where since a befuddled Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s Press Secretary, confessed to CNN, “We couldn’t decided because none of us know our way around here.” Clearly, the White House was looking disappointingly at all the amateurs on their own campaign who blew it, and all the country bumpkin amateurs invading their hallowed place of work for the past four years.
At the risk of sounding cheaply tactless, I actually was standing there on the Mall smoking a cigar with the Washington Times tucked under my arm. The paper included a full color commemorative section in which the Times, who supported President Bush, tastefully and respectfully included many glowing stories from friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton. If only all major newspapers and media outlets followed such respectful discourse.
Beyond the inauguration, the news stories that day topped with Iraq continuing not to honor the no fly zones. Their bellicosity was met by U.S. air strikes. Additionally, aides to President Bush said “He’s angry with President-elect Bill Clinton’s adoption of many of his positions and disillusioned with a fickle public that now appears to like him again.” To be sure, many of the issues Governor Clinton attacked President Bush on during the campaign he himself was now embracing, such as Haiti and China; Clinton even told the Diplomatic Corps two days before his Inauguration that his foreign policy will echo Mr. Bush’s.
On that, January 20, 1993, President-elect Bill Clinton took the oath of office after winning just 43% of the vote. At the same time, exiting President George Bush’s popularity in the polls was between 59-61%. Again, how did we lose?
Watching the parade just south of the Treasury Building on 15th Street I saw the new President and First Lady get out of the car at the traditional spot and walk the rest of the way. Unlike the most recent Inauguration Day parade I attended in 2004, there were no angry screams, vile comments, obnoxious signs directed at the president, desecration of the flag or other acts of unconscionable disrespect towards this nation. No, all those who were virulently unhappy about Bill Clinton being elected respectfully stayed home on Inauguration Day. I watched this pomp with a curious sense of pride and cardialgia. Later, passing The Ellipse I was struck by the sight of an Allied Moving van parked in front of the South Portico of the White House. Well, how else are they to move in? I guess it all seemed so regular, and proletarian to see an average moving van in front of the White House. Regardless of my personal dislike for the reason it was there, the image did seem beautifully and uniquely American.
That evening there was a big “Anti-Inauguration” party at the Republican National Committee. Relax, this happens every four years when the loyal opposition licks their wounds with a full bar. I walked into the RNC Headquarters eager for some free food and booze with other unemployed, like-minded young Americans. But before I could slip my hand around a glass of scotch and chat up some neatly pressed, headband wearing young Republican lass I was paged. Paged? Yes, before cell phones and text messages people communicated thusly – a friend called my apartment, my roommate indicated that I went to the RNC party, so the RNC was called, and a message was given to the operator, and then over the loudspeaker in the foyer my name was paged in a soothing voice at 5-minute intervals. Today, the cell phone has made personal connections a million times more efficient, but just as equally, less glamorous.
I went up and was told I must call my apartment immediately. My roommate relayed the message that Sean Walsh called and the White House Press Office was partying at Champions bar in Georgetown. Well, then, on to Georgetown!
Champions was a popular sports bar at the end of a broad alley off of Wisconsin Avenue. As I hustled towards the entrance Ted Koppel was walking out of the bar with a cameraman, clearly getting the last whispers of a political party which dominated the Executive Branch for the previous 12 years. Inside this pub, popular with students and locals alike, there were two dozen young men and women – suit jackets off, ties slightly askew — all enjoying themselves at the bar. It was a typical Happy Hour scene replicated on any given day all across America. But this group was vastly different than those sales people celebrating a good financial quarter, or those accountants celebrating the end of tax season. These men and woman, laughing, singing, and yes, crying, were the Press Office staffs of the President and the Vice President of the United States of America!
It was the end of their tenure in the White House, and certainly an end of an era. I felt very honored to be the only campaign staffer with this elite group that night, since there was still plenty of contention and finger-pointing between the White House and the campaign regarding the architecture of this catastrophic loss by a man currently cruising at 61% favorability to a man who won by a mere 43% of the American vote. Soon, the music was lowered and the TV was turned up. That evening CBS’s 48 Hours did a special on Inauguration Day that included a piece on my pal Sean who, as the Last Man Out, was the very last politically-appointed Bush official to physically leave the White House that day. We all cheered through glossy eyes, then the music was turned back up, and the women were belting out the current, popular tune by Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You,” with arms draped around one another, and balancing glasses of wine.
As the most powerful nation on earth begrudgingly changed administrations every shot fired was in a glass on the bar, and while the new Arkansas contingent kicked up their heels on the other side of town, we, the vanquished, decided to ignore their celebration, get off the bench, out of the dugout, and enjoy some Champaign ourselves!
And with that, Inauguration Day twenty years ago, and a personal experience of a lifetime, came to an end…but, the nation endured, and so do we.