At the White House, an Obama Party
Around midnight, when the election outcome was clear, thousands of young people walked and skipped and ran to the north gates of the White House, celebrating not just the election of Barack Obama but the repudiation of George W. Bush.
Amid a cacophony of car horns honking and chants of “Yes We Can” and “O-ba-ma,” there were taunts directed at the current occupant of the White House, chants of “No More Bush” and “Nah-nah, Good-bye.”
For all the historic significance of Obama’s victory – the first African-American elected U.S. President and the nation finally choosing hope over fear – there was another part of the story: a public repudiation of George W. Bush and what he stands for.
George W. Bush will not get the impeachment that he has so thoroughly earned, but at least there will be the scene of ecstatic young Americans wishing him to be gone from the White House that he illegitimately claimed in the stolen election of 2000.
As I walked among the young crowd that packed into Pennsylvania Avenue and reveled in the area around Lafayette Park, I was reminded of a very different moment nearly eight years earlier when I went with two of my sons, Sam and Nat, to a spot a few blocks away.
We stood in the chilly rain on Jan. 20, 2001, as protesters chanted angrily against Bush’s ascension to the presidency, a position he claimed with the unprecedented help of five Republican allies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
That day was a dark and ominous beginning to what has proven to be a catastrophic eight years.
In memory of that grim day – the start of a painful era that didn’t end until the cool, misty night of Nov. 4, 2008 – I’m publishing below excerpts from the opening chapter of Neck Deep, a book about the disastrous Bush presidency that I co-wrote with Sam and Nat:
The rain pelted down in icy-cold droplets, chilling both the protesters in soaked parkas and the well-dressed celebrants bent behind umbrellas to shield their furs and cashmere overcoats.
Drawn to this historic moment – a time of triumph for some and fury for others – the two opposing groups jostled and pushed their way through security checkpoints, joining the tens of thousands pressing against rows of riot police lining Pennsylvania Avenue.
After taking the subway from Arlington, Virginia, the three of us joined the crowd crammed into a block of 13th Street, on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, near the point where Inaugural parades bend intheir grand procession from the U.S. Capitol, turn right at the foot of the U.S. Treasury and then veer left before passing in front of the White House.
To our right was a stone expanse called Freedom Plaza, where temporary viewing stands had been erected for invited guests. That corner is marked by a statue of Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski, a Polish cavalryman and freedom fighter who joined the American Revolution and died at the battle of Savannah in 1779.
To our left stood a twelve-story building, with the red awnings of a CVS pharmacy on the ground level and rounded balconies of corporate offices on the floors above.
The elegantly attired Republicans squeezed their way through the angry crowd of drenched protesters to the VIP stands or to those rounded balconies, which offered protection from the rain and an unobstructed view of Pennsylvania Avenue below.
The Republicans had come to cheer the new U.S. President, George W. Bush, privileged scion of a powerful political family who nonetheless ended his gerunds by dropping the “g” to convey the populist image of a Texas wildcatter.
Bush was replacing President Bill Clinton, a Democrat who had survived an impeachment battle over a sexual dalliance with a former White House intern. To Bush supporters, the new President would bring back the warmly remembered propriety of his father, President George H.W. Bush.
One of George W. Bush’s biggest applause lines of Campaign 2000 was his vow to restore “honor and dignity” to the Oval Office.
Day of Infamy
But other Americans believed January 20, 2001, was a day of infamy for the American Republic. It was the first time in 112 years that a popular-vote loser was to be installed as President of the United States – and then only after he engineered an unprecedented intervention by political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Five Republican justices had stopped the vote count in the swing state of Florida, where Bush’s brother, Jeb, was governor and other Bush loyalists oversaw the election, which then was awarded to Bush by 537 votes out of six million ballots cast.
So, on that cold January day, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Washington, D.C., shouting angry slogans and waving handwritten anti-Bush signs.
The protesters were convinced that Bush had stolen the presidential election and, in so doing, had disenfranchised the plurality of citizens who had cast their ballots for Democrat Al Gore.
Some signs were addressed directly to Bush. “You’re not my President,” read one. “I know you lost,” said another. One sign had just two large letters, “NO.” To these Americans, Bush’s ascension to the nation’s highest office was a travesty of democracy.
Where we stood, the protesters, many in dark-colored parkas and ski or baseball caps, outnumbered the elegantly attired Republicans.
Some Republicans in the balconies shouted “Sore Loserman!” down at the crowd, reprising a taunt that right-wing activists had coined to bait supporters of the Democratic ticket of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman during the Florida recount battle.
But the bullying tone, which had characterized the Republicans during those bitter days of November and December, was gone. They seemed taken aback by the size and ferocity of the anti-Bush crowd. Some protesters shouted back up to the balconies, “Jump! Jump!”
The anti-Bush protesters pulsated with the fury of a people who had been robbed of something irreplaceable, like some precious heirloom handed down reverentially through generations and which was now gone.
It was as if the protesters sensed they represented the “posterity” that the Founders had envisioned when they laid the cornerstones of a democratic Republic almost 225 years earlier.
Many in the crowd – like the three of us – had gone into the streets that rainy day to bear witness against a violation of the most basic covenant of democracy, that the choice of leaders must be left in the hands of the voters, even when the margins are as narrow as they were in Election 2000.
Though few protesters could have seriously thought they had any chance of reclaiming the nation’s democratic legacy that day, they acted as if their presence could at least negate the nodding capitulation of the wise heads of Washington.
That acquiescence to a Bush restoration had crossed party lines to include senior Democrats in Congress and extended into the editorial offices of major American news organizations. Many pundits and politicians acted as if it were a quaint notion that the candidate with the most votes was the one who was supposed to win.
That bemused complacency of the elites contrasted with an uncompromising anger in the streets. As Bush took the oath of office, becoming the 43rd President and completing his extraordinary power grab, the growing fury of the crowd built toward a crescendo.
Rather than cheers for the new President, the capital echoed with resounding chants of “Hail to the Thief!”
As Bush’s limousine began the traditional slow-moving ride down Pennsylvania Avenue, some protesters mocked Bush with a chant of, “Oh, no! Gore’s ahead, I better call my brother Jeb,” and the more succinct slogan, “Gore got more!”
Though the size and intensity of this protest against an incoming President were unprecedented at least since the Vietnam War, little of the chaos and drama along Pennsylvania Avenue found its way into the mainstream coverage of Bush’s inauguration.
The major news media approached the event mostly with the hackneyed template of a new President taking office amid a celebration of democracy.
There was little said about Bush losing the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots or how he had clung to his narrow victory in Florida only by the grace of tortured legal logic from five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nor was there much commentary about how the anti-democratic election outcome – and the heavy police presence to prevent anti-Bush rioting in Washington – gave the inauguration the feel of an American state of siege.
Instead, Washington’s “conventional wisdom” was all about the need for healing, for rallying around the new President and for putting the national bitterness – of both Election 2000 and the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency – in the past.
Many Washington insiders felt private satisfaction with the outcome. They had despised Clinton and were pleased by the defeat of his sidekick Gore.
Clinton was admired for his speaking skills and political acumen, but was hated for his slick style and boorish conduct in the White House; Gore became the whipping boy who suffered for Clinton’s sins and for Clinton’s survival to the end of his term.
At pre-Inaugural dinner parties around Washington, there was open nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when integrity and honesty supposedly ruled. A favorite Washington comment in anticipation of George W. Bush’s inauguration was that it would “put the adults back in charge.”
So, there was little tolerance for the full-throated complaints of the thousands of demonstrators waving protest signs and shaking their fists at the Inaugural parade. TV anchors and political commentators treated the protests as a tasteless nuisance, when the demonstrations were mentioned at all.
It would take more than three years for the fuller historic picture to be put into focus by Michael Moore’s documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Moore highlighted dramatic Inauguration Day scenes of protesters surging through the streets, scuffling with police and egging Bush’s limousine as it descended from Capitol Hill toward the White House.
“The plan to have Bush get out of the limo for the traditional walk to the White House was scrapped,” Moore said in narrating the footage of masses of Americans decrying Bush’s tainted victory. “Bush’s limo hit the gas to prevent an even larger riot. No President had ever witnessed such a thing on his Inauguration Day.”
From our cramped vantage point on 13th Street, we couldn’t see the egg-throwing incident which occurred several blocks to our left. But we did notice the presidential limousine and security vehicles speed up, hurrying past both those Americans who came to honor Bush and those who stood in the rain to heckle him.
After the limousine rushed past, the crowd experienced a few moments of confusion as the facts of Bush’s hasty passage rippled back through the protesters.
Soon, the reality of Bush’s presidency began to sink in bringing with it a pang of disappointment to many demonstrators. What many of them saw as an American coup d’etat was a fait accompli. The bedraggled protesters shouted a few more choruses of “Hail to the Thief!” and slowly began to disperse.
As a shaken George W. Bush slipped into the White House on that cold gray day, a divided America was already rushing down two separate paths. The press and the pundits – along with a majority of Americans, as measured by polls – hoped that the second Bush administration would succeed for the good of the country.
But a significant percentage of the population was furious that the institutions of American democracy had performed so badly during the campaign and then during the drawn-out recount battle.
This group felt deep animosity toward the Supreme Court’s partisan majority and toward the press corps’ sudden eagerness to show deference to a new President.
The anti-Bush Americans recalled the relentless attacks on Clinton – from both the Republicans and the news media – during his eight years in the White House, beginning before he took the oath. Where was the deference then? Where was the demand for unity?
Clinton was denied even the semblance of a “honeymoon” from a press corps sensitive to longtime criticism of its supposed “liberal” bias and determined to show that it would be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.
Plus, Washington’s insider community judged the Arkansas-born Clinton an interloper, a pretender, a hick who had gotten too big for his britches, an unwelcome guest who quickly overstayed what little welcome he had.
In 1998, after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke, Washington Post society columnist (and Georgetown doyenne) Sally Quinn explained this hostility in a column that traced the contempt for Clinton back to his Inaugural Address in 1993.
Quinn wrote that Clinton had insulted the Washington Establishment when he described the capital as “a place of intrigue and calculation [where] powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way.”
This perceived slight to the Establishment deepened into a burning contempt over the next several years as Republicans and the media kept up a steady drumbeat of accusations challenging the ethics of the Clintons and their associates.
When Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky surfaced in 1998, Quinn wrote that the insider community wanted Clinton to pack up immediately and leave town.
“Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the Presidency and the city any more humiliation,” Quinn wrote.
Turning on Gore
When Clinton survived the Republican impeachment effort in 1999, the Washington press corps and the capital’s insiders transferred their unrequited anti-Clinton hostility onto Gore. As the new presidential campaign began, journalists acted as if they had carte blanche to misquote Gore or otherwise distort his positions.
For instance, the media eagerly adopted a Republican-invented quote for Gore about him claiming that he “invented the Internet,” an apocryphal phrase that became a running punch line used both to deny Gore credit for his farsighted early work as an Internet champion in Congress and to portray Gore as a delusional braggart.
At times, the media jettisoned any pretext of objectivity. At a Democratic debate in New Hampshire between Gore and a Democratic rival, Senator Bill Bradley, reporters mocked Gore as they sat in a nearby press room and watched the debate on television.
“Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd,” observed Time’s Eric Pooley.
The press corps’ contempt for Gore carried over into the general election. Any verbal misstep by Gore became an example of his dishonesty, as happened when he misremembered visiting a disaster with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when it was really a FEMA deputy director.
During the bitter Florida recount, the anti-Gore bias stayed strong with a widespread media acceptance that Bush was the rightful winner of the presidency even though Gore outpolled Bush by more than a half million votes nationwide.
The simple fact was that the Bush family had long been a pillar of the Washington Establishment, surrounded by other revered figures.
Some of the Bush entourage, such as James A. Baker III, were admired for their smooth political savvy. Others, such as retired Gen. Colin Powell, were beloved as national security “wise men.” Bush's Vice President Dick Cheney had a positive reputation as a tough-minded, no-nonsense leader.
While some Washington insiders doubted that George W. Bush possessed the skill package to make a great President, they were sure that his father’s battle-tested team would step in whenever the son needed guidance.
So, there wasn’t much worry that the United States was under the control of a relative novice. The thinking was that the American people would get what many of them wanted, a leader they liked, and the government would get what it needed, the experienced hands of George H.W. Bush’s old guard.
The first deception of the second Bush administration would be the public illusion of George W. Bush as the Texas everyman clearing brush in blue jeans and cowboy boots, when he was in reality a plutocrat in plebian clothes.
He was the rich kid whose family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, sits on a rocky point reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean and bearing Bush’s middle name, Walker.
Those family connections, more than anything else, explained Bush’s rise to the highest office in the land.
For more on the how and why of the catastrophic Bush presidency, see Neck Deep.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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