Kentucky students catch the inaugural spirit

To David Heyburn, the inauguration of George W. Bush was a moment he could witness with a certain empathy.

The senior at Ballard High School in Louisville, Ky., won the top spot in his class election - but not on the first vote. That yielded a tie. Three recounts later, it was still a tie.

But unlike Florida, the school acted quickly. A revote was ordered, and the lanky senior ended up winning by a chad-thin margin. "It was nerve-racking, and I just had one day to wait," Mr. Heyburn said as he stood in line to get past a security guard and onto the Washington Mall.

Heyburn and classmates braved the drizzle on this raw day in January to witness the finale of one of the most bizarre - and intriguing - elections in American history. In recent months, many Ballard students, and others across the nation, became riveted spectators of the political game. They witnessed the truly unusual - like friends chatting about dimpled ballots the way they might about the senior prom. And now, as they moved toward a bunting-swathed Capitol, they were party to that most regal of American political traditions - as well as a spine-tingling variety of political experience.

"It's so American," said Laura Van Hoose, a senior, shaking her head as she and her peers angled for a good viewing spot without sinking into the muddy ground. "I think I'm going to cry."

It's not a typical reaction for members of a generation reputed to live on the Internet and who often rank politics dead last as a career choice. But for these 43 students, watching Mr. Bush take his oath put the crowning touches on an election many knew intimately - and which had even inspired some to start calculating their own prospects for the campaign trail.

It didn't seem to matter that they had been up before dawn to catch a plane from Kentucky, or that they faced standing for hours in the mist and cold. Or that their impressive gold tickets admitted them with mere thousands of others to a spot from which Bush looked like a speck of dust, even through at-the-ready binoculars.

This, after all, was history in the making. At the convocation, maroon Ballard hats came off. Later, cheers went up for students from a neighboring Louisville high school who sang "America the Beautiful." Ears tilted attentively to hear the new president. Many of the students had supported Bush, even though Ballard gave Al Gore the nod by 20 votes in a mock election.

For senior Rodney Todd, watching Bush seemed like a natural outcome. "I knew Bush was going to win," he said confidently. "I supported Bush because he seemed like he knew what he wanted."

That wasn't the case for everyone. "I didn't think Bush knew what he was talking about," Stacey Hohl said firmly. "He just looked - confused."

Those who didn't support Bush were nonetheless sanguine about the future - especially after getting a look at it up close and personal on Inauguration Day.

"My candidate was Clinton," said Kasie Wheeler, laughing. She watched TV every day as soon as she got home to find out the latest twists. On this day, Ms. Wheeler was listening intently to the inaugural speech for clues as to what's next - and not just for her own sake. She wanted to go back to tell her church and community what Bush is going to do for them. "I think he'll do the best for us to come together as one nation," said Wheeler, who is African-American. "I got from the speech that he is not going to be partisan."

That lack of cynicism was palpable. And in this law-and-order crowd, not many gave credence to protesters, whose numbers were the largest in decades.

Wheeler was firm that the Supreme Court acted properly in closing down the election. And she wasn't alone. "It ticks me off to see 'He stole the election,' " Van Hoose commented.

Indeed, one student started a "Give me a 'W'!" chant as protesters passed by carrying "Hail to the Thief" signs. Another counseled someone getting embroiled in an argument not to take the bait.

In his speech, Bush made references to young people that sat well with this group. But several had suggestions for better engaging their peers in future elections - especially those that might lack engaging theater.

Andy Gunn, who supported Bush because he wants conservative Supreme Court appointments, nonetheless noted that Bush and Gore didn't use MTV to reach out the way Bill Clinton had. He also gave Nader high points for connecting well with young people. Katie Stockwell said she'd like more government-provided financial aid so that anyone can go to college. She mused that a lower voting age, 16 years, might energize kids.

High on the list, though, was the need for more civics lessons - a surprise to those who recall struggling to stay awake as they stared at diagrams of the three branches of government. "Young people don't vote partly because they're lazy," Anthony Trotter said. But, he added, echoing several classmates, "they're not educated about it. [Schools] should teach civics more."

The inauguration was one boisterous civics lesson this group will not soon forget. On the long walk back to their bus, past Congress and the Supreme Court, students were starting to pull together a collage of images. They'd seen a former president stand by as his son took office for only the second time in history. They'd witnessed a peaceful transfer of power after a fractious election. They'd learned how hard it is to cross the mall when the Secret Service doesn't want you to.

"Today energized me," Van Hoose said enthusiastically. "I'm behind Bush more than ever now because I was here. The benefits of our country are a big deal."

Mr. Trotter said he wouldn't repeat the experience any time soon - but only because of the crowds. "Maybe one day, I'll bring my kids," he said. "This is something everyone should experience in their lifetime."

E-mail newcomba@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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