Return of the Republicans ... in capital style

The cold rain was not going to stop, but Mellie Kausal said she was unconcerned about the fate of her brown mink. This moment had been too long coming. Soon, George W. Bush would raise his right hand, and the Clinton era would be over. Democrats, Southern volubility, and Hollywood glitz would be out. Republicans, Western taciturnity, and pelt-bearing animals would be in.

So Ms. Kausal and her husband - Columbia, Md., residents who had obtained tickets from a congressional staff friend - sat expectantly in Section Eight, 40 yards from the podium on the west front of the United States Capitol, and waited for a new Republican era to begin. "I could buy another coat - but there's only one inauguration of George W. Bush!" said Kausal. "We love the Bushes!"

Actually, when it comes to inaugurations, President Bush himself probably hopes there will be two. But never mind - the sentiment holds. Eight years after Bill Clinton seized the White House, the Republicans have retaken control of Washington, and they're pretty happy about it. The Restoration has begun - a restoration of GOP style, as well as substance.

FULL DANCE CARD: George W. Bush dances with his daughter Barbara as Jenna, his other daughter, and wife, Laura, look on. They attended the Florida Inaugural Ball Saturday night.

It's unfair to characterize this as a simple return of the fat cats. The Democrats, if anything, are just as dependent on wealthy individuals for campaign cash. Remember this phrase: "Lincoln bedroom sleepover."

But there's no denying that a Bal Harbour kind of luxe has returned to the nation's capital. The dresses are brighter, the hair higher, the earrings danglier. There's more shrewd recognition of business opportunity.

Consider another inaugural attendee in a full-length mink, a woman who would give her name only as "Ramona from Dallas." She was huddled under an umbrella, trying to keep dry. "I wish they were selling those little plastic ponchos out here," she said. "I mean, someone could make a killing."

Someone did. Ramona, clearly, missed the semi-permanent souvenir trucks that dot Washington and, generation after generation, have dispensed bad food and T-shirts printed with political sayings that purport to be witty.

Inaugural attendees sported designer ponchos imprinted with the Capitol, clear ponchos, red ponchos, yellow and peach ponchos. Barbara Bush wore one as she proudly watched her son take the oath of office. Unlike most of the other men on the podium, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wore one too. After all that unpleasantness about chads, perhaps he hoped his brother wouldn't recognize him.

Heat packs and the occasional high heel

Veterans of such previous inclement events as the second Reagan inaugural, when cold alone drove the swearing-in indoors, had other ways of keeping warm. At least one journalist had brought squeeze-activated ski heating packs to keep his hands warm. The Marine band wore gloves with little holes in them for their finger tips to reach their instruments' keys.

There were a few women in high heels and miniskirts, but most people attending the swearing-in were sensibly dressed. Lydia Saris-Mechenbier, from Pittsburgh, proudly listed everything she had on, starting with her feet: socks, pantyhose, boots, slacks, T-shirt, blouse, a sweater, tweed wool overcoat, gloves, scarf, hat, and umbrella. Her nose, cheeks, and chin were all of her that was visible.

Her reaction to Bush's speech was fairly typical. "He was comforting, but not inspiring," said Ms. Saris-Mechenbier. "He reaffirmed the things we hope to be true."

Afterwards, as the crowd flooded away from the ceremony towards Metro stations and buses, a helicopter thumped overhead, away in the gloom. Some, assuming it to be ex-president Clinton and his wife, broke into song: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye."

It wasn't Clinton, but the activity warmed them up a little bit.

Protesters, for the most part, were well-behaved. Of course, "well-behaved protester" is something of an oxymoron, but when dissent is confined to specifically designated protest areas, the spontaneity kind of goes out of it.

The basic protest theme: theft. The signs told the story: "Bush Cheated," "Re-elect Gore in 2004," and so on. Two men dressed in half-peeled banana suits promoted the idea that America has now become a banana republic. Bush supporters who wandered into the melee looked shocked, or a bit confused.

At one point along the parade route a gaggle of protesters suddenly arrived, each inexplicably wearing a cardboard mask in the shape of a caribou. They were doing a little street dance with drums when a GOP couple in the obligatory suit and mink walked by. "Reindeer?" said the man. "Why are they protesting about reindeer?"

Out past midnight

The real focus of almost any inaugural, of course, is not the swearing-in itself, which is brief, but the parties, which are not. At least, not by the standards of Washington, where hostesses know that many consider 11 p.m. "the wee hours."

Administration to administration, Republican or Democrat, inaugural balls tend to share certain characteristics. Food is scant, coat checking nonexistent, crowds enormous, and enthusiasm high. Many resemble charity galas that could have used a few more months of planning to be truly pulled together.

The clash of politics and entertainment can be, well, jarring. Consider the Concert Celebrating America's Youth, at Washington's new MCI Center. Music for young people is necessarily about rebellion, in many ways, about pushing boundaries. That's not a typical GOP message.

Among the groups performing at the youth concert was Destiny's Child, a black all-girl band sporting more than a little skin and pants that appeared to have been spray-painted on. At one point, they left the stage and said they would return for an encore only if everyone got up on their feet.

Dutifully, an elderly white couple, the chaperone set, rose off their seats and performed what could only be described as a semblance of the "Hokey Pokey 2001."

Organizers said the show was put on in "awards style format." This meant that at one point Destiny's Child jiggled off stage to a booming bass line and the announcer said: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the secretary of Housing and Urban Development designee, Mel Martinez."

He got just as big a cheer as the band.

The Florida Ball at the National Building Museum was more sedate. When Dick Cheney dropped by, a phalanx of trumpeters announced his arrival as if he were a conquering emperor. When George W. Bush came by, he got "Hail to the Chief." But the night's real star got something much more. "India had Mother Teresa," boomed the announcer. "The South had Rosa Parks. And France had Joan of Arc."

Dramatic pause.

"But Florida," he bellowed, "has Katherine Harris." Florida's secretary of state, the woman who certified Bush's victory, entered to wild applause.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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