Remembrances of Inaugurations Past

2009 January 22

Among the many (and sometimes conflicting) emotions I experienced during President Obama’s inauguration, not least were those prompted by memories of another inaugural ceremony, one that took place exactly eight years ago. Although the events leading up to the Supreme Court decision that ultimately made George W. Bush the 43rd President were extensively covered in the media, less well documented were the events of Inauguration Day, January 20, 2001. Dennis Loy Johnson’s The Big Chill: The Great, Unreported Story of the Bush Inauguration Protest does an admirable job of trying to correct the dearth of information about the events of that historically significant day, in which tens of thousands (exact figures are hard to come by) of people marched in a massive protest against the “selection, not election” of the man who would turn out to be among the least popular presidents in American history. At the time, however – even before the advent of the post 9/11 climate of mandatory jingoism and “support the President” rhetoric – a compliant media largely chose to ignore the writing on the wall suggested by the presence of the largest such protest since the one that had greeted Richard M. Nixon’s second inauguration in 1973. The New York Times’ coverage of the event was typical: a single-sentence mention of “disenchanted” protesters in a front-page commentary by R. W. Apple, Jr., two similarly terse references buried in the paper’s back pages, and a staged photo of Bush walking along Pennsylvania Avenue (in reality the presence of protestors had compelled the new President to remain in his limo for nearly the entire parade route). As one who took part in the protest, my own memories of the day are somewhat more vivid, consisting mainly of the distinct impression that the throngs of protesters, representing a diverse range of ages, backgrounds and pet causes but united by a sense of outrage over the way an unelected president was coming into office, heavily outnumbered both his fur-coat –and-cowboy-hat-clad supporters and the riot-gear-outfitted police. As all of us stood in the sleet and freezing rain on that dreary Inauguration Day, none could have known the extent to which we were inaugurating not just a President, but one of the most shameful and destructive eras in recent American history.

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