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.