The Pleasant Pause of Expectation
January 20, 1989
Henry Allen, Washington Post Staff Writer
It was George Bush.
It was the weather, 58 degrees at 3 o’clock, that had you looking for crocuses out of the corner of your eye.
It was 9,000 high school kids nice enough to put their hands over their mouths when they yawned during some of the speeches at the Looking Forward gathering at the D.C. Armory.
It was the flags lolling in a south wind, the ice melting on the rink in front of the Willard. It was the easy sound of Texans in hotel lobbies, saying people’s names with question marks on the end, as in “Barry? How yew? Jeannette? How yew?”
Which is to say Washington, on the day before George Bush’s inauguration, had an upholstered, buoyant feeling to it, as if the whole city had been turned into one of those pneumatic trampolines kids jump on at carnivals, and instead of an air compressor keeping it pumped up, there was the noise of helicopters, sirens and sound technicians saying, “Test one two …”
It was Kamil Kubik standing at his easel on a corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, looking up toward the Capitol and painting a picture of the flags and architecture gone soft as pastry in the sunlight. He had painted street scenes in Reagan’s two inaugurations, too. He said the difference in atmosphere yesterday was the weather, a different kind of Republican and a different kind of country in 1989.
“The first time it was … it was California, boisterous, more boisterous, it was after depression, people got so depressed back then. This time it’s business, very professional, the Yankees, very Yankee. Also, in normal weather, if it was colder, they would act more normal.”
He held up a Christmas card reproduced from his painting of the wintry 1984 inauguration. “I painted that for Barbara Bush,” he said. “She bought it for George.”
At Constitution Hall, a small crowd relaxed with a historical pageant that was everything you ever wanted your high school patriotic pageant to be if you were in high school in 1953. Patrick Henry stood up there in knee breeches shouting, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Union and Confederate soldiers glared across a tableau vivant while the U.S. Army Band and Chorus offered a soundtrack of “one wore blue and one wore gray.”
Outside the East Wing of the White House, a group of drivers waited for a number of celebrities to emerge: Mickey Rooney, John James of “Dynasty” and somebody from the cast of “The Facts of Life” were said to be inside.
“Very calm,” said David Keller, who was driving for actor Paul Sorvino. “I expected it to be much more frenetic today.”
“It’s kinder and gentler,” said Anita Powell of Washington, echoing Bush’s call for a kinder and gentler America.
It was also groups of inaugural visitors standing on street corners, all pointing in different directions and saying, “We came from that direction, so maybe we’d better …” It was the rich and powerful behind the smoked glass windows of limousines, which slid around town with the impeccable heft of safe-deposit boxes.
“It’s subdued,” said Jerry Kane, a teacher from Long Island.
“But very pleasant,” said his wife Nancy.
Down on the Mall, a Buddhist organization called Nichiren Shoshu had claimed a chunk of the Washington Monument grounds with a 47-foot-tall Statue of Liberty and a 51-foot-tall reproduction of the chair George Washington sat in during the Constitutional Convention. How strange! How pleasant! Next to the chair was a bas-relief of the president-elect, but it looked more like Alan Alda than George Bush. Kind and gentle, in any case.
Across 14th Street, women in fur coats and men in profoundly gray suits waited on line for hours to get inside the Museum of American History for a few minutes with vice president-elect Dan Quayle, at $20 per person.
Two reasons were given.
“It’ll be the last time we see him,” said Barry Ertrelt, a contractor from Guilford, Conn.
“He may be the president someday,” said Earl Fitts, an accountant who is also mayor of Siler City, N.C.
Earlier, up at the Armory, Quayle apologized to the 9,000 high school students for his mediocre academic record, saying that if he were in school nowadays, “education is one of the things I’d take more seriously.”
George Bush humbled himself before the students by referring to a campaign gaffe on Sept. 7, which he had momentarily confused with Dec. 7: “I certainly learned the importance of education during the campaign. I learned how vital it is to memorize dates — Pearl Harbor Day, for example.”
The students gave him a hearty, cheerful hand, the sort of applause that Bush seems to get a lot, not a trace of excess in it but no shortage of respect and gratitude, either.
There was no rock ‘n’ roll, there were no youth-cult innuendoes, there was not a trace of irony. Yakov Smirnoff, a Soviet e’migre’ comedian, said: “In the Soviet Union, the state owns everything. Here [crucial pause] Japan owns everything.” It wasn’t clear the students thought this was entirely appropriate.
So many speeches! Hae Kyung Lee, of Woodson High School in Virginia, was asked if she was bored.
In the tone of the Texans saying Barry? Jeanette? she said, “Not that much?”
It was all so stunningly normal, yesterday, no sign of the outlaw edge that slices through American life now and then. There was that sense of cultural pause that middle-aged people can remember in the early ’50s, just before rock ‘n’ roll hit.
It was easy to imagine these kids looking back on the Bush inauguration and telling their children: “Things were simpler back then.”
It was a fine day for it, too.