Not many meaningful public rituals in America remain. (Those that do are usually connected to sports.) But when Bill Clinton was inaugurated for a second term the nation took notice, at least a little, since it happened on a three-day weekend. Although the inauguration was a major local story in the Washington metro area, it was not as big as the average ice storm.
Of course, some inaugurations are more inaugural than others. In another era, Nixon’s ’69 inaugural graphically dramatized the state of the union when his parade was pelted with rocks and debris by anti-war protesters. The great Clinton-Gore shindig of ’93, if you remember that distant weekend, reinforced the feeling that the long Reaganaut nightmare was over at last: Another America, the multicolored one of open hearts and open spaces, was coming back to life.
That moment was supposedly canceled by the great congressional counterrevolution of 1994, which was in turn canceled by the ’96 elections and Newt’s disgrace. Now there are no more revolutions and we are into the era of muddling through. And the lighter-than-air mishmash of the second Clinton inaugural was a suitably emblematic moment of muddle.
An inauguration is usually a carefully constructed act of political theater; the content of the production is supposed to lie in the president’s Big Speech. In ’93 Clinton got off a humdinger of a speech by playing JFK’s old torch-passing generational riff, and inaugural poet Maya Angelou brought the noise.
Sometimes a non-verbal statement comes through in elements of the ritual. Kennedy shook the old foundations by braving the cold with no topcoat (as did Al Gore this year) and by refusing to wear one of those silly top hats. Carter stated his place in American politics by ditching the limo and walking the entire inaugural parade route.
THE CLINTON YEARS have seen the ultimate triumph of pop culture over politics, and the most meaningful moments have come at the post-inaugural balls. Of course, there was Big Bill’s famous sax solo of 1993, but the picture I remember most clearly from that first round of Clinton festivities is of Natalie Merchant singing "To Sir, With Love" for the new president. This tune wrapped up the whole Boomers and Xers generational saga, and cemented Clinton’s marginal connection to the great American cultural mainstream of rock and roll.
This year my defining inaugural moment also came at one of the balls, this time the Arkansas affair, when this year’s female rocker, Sheryl Crow, hoisted her Strat and sang for the Prez, "All I Want to Do is Have Some Fun." The song parodies the ramblings of a bubbleheaded California barfly, but in this context the irony lifted and triviality was all. For in fact the Clinton inaugural, and the prospects for the second Clinton term, are about as substantial as the gassy philosophizing in Crow’s song.
The problem with Clinton’s "vision thing," as even some of the official pundits noticed, is that it pictures a world where problems have simply disappeared by some magical techno-panacea. Clinton talks about taming the so-called Information Age to our Judeo-Christian and democratic values and providing secure family incomes. These are, in fact, the core issues for turn-of-the-century politics. They are matters for deep, impassioned, and prolonged political and cultural combat. The Clinton of ’93 (the Carville Clinton) seemed to understand this. Despite passing references to community and personal responsibility, the ’97 Clinton (the Morris Clinton) is selling snake oil, not struggle.
What was on display Inauguration Day was a presidency stripped of political content. This is our fault, not Clinton’s. He’s a creature of his political surroundings and times. Standing up there on a cold Capitol Hill, surrounded by powerful Republicans, not much is really possible except fond wishes for an unnamed future. The foundations of that future, if it comes, will be laid in our own communities, churches, schools, and workplaces as we learn to seek shared solutions to our apparently private woes.
One person present at the Inaugural Gala televised on Inauguration Eve seemed clearly to understand and communicate this grassroots American vision: Stevie Wonder, as he has done for 35 years now, rose above the show-biz schmaltz and phony sentiment of the day and spoke with the voice, rhythm, and grace of God. He sang for the homeless and the hurting and the lost, and he commanded us all to love one another.
For a moment, I was convinced we had been the victims of a cruel and elaborate hoax. It was revealed to me that Stevie Wonder was really the President of the United States, and he’d been held in exile for years by a series of impostors. It was a nice vision, and one worth a wish. With his thickened middle and receding hairline, Stevie is even starting to look presidential....
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.