After the swearing-in, I made my way through the chilly throngs to a parade-viewing party sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council. Over the cheery din of a Dixieland band, the moderate Democrats were all shouting at each other the same question: “What did you think of the speech?” This is Washingtonese for “Let me tell you what I thought of the speech.”
What did you think of the speech? After passing through a vortex of spin like the DLC party, it’s hard to keep hold of your own initial reaction. I think I liked it–at least more than most of the people I talked with at the party. The New Democrats are never satisfied. When Clinton finally comes around to their point of view, he’s too late to make them happy. But the speech did seem much less good when I read the text later, so perhaps it was just the majesty of the occasion or Jessye Norman’s awesome voice that put me in an agreeable frame of mind.
The good part, I thought, was the passage about government being neither the problem nor the solution. “We need a new government for a new century–humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves,” he said. “A government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less. Yet, where it can stand up for our values and interest around the world, and where it can give Americans the power to make a real difference in their everyday lives, government should do more, not less.”
Clinton has been playing with variations on this theme since at least 1991, trying to explain his reform-liberal vision of government. Listening to him, I felt that he had finally succeeded in expressing the somewhat murky idea he has been struggling to articulate: that he sees government as a tool, not as an end in itself. Of course, having done that, Clinton immediately took his point too far by claiming that “we have resolved for our time a great debate over the role of government.” Clinton may have resolved what he thinks about government, but the rest of the country, I’m afraid, is still working on it.
Beyond that, there wasn’t much worth saving–lots of attempted ask-nottery, but nothing worthy of Bartlett’s. Clinton played all the riffs he has been practicing recently–“spirit of community,” “Cardinal Bernardin,” and “building a bridge,” along with a new one: “a land of new promise.” This, I thought, was the low point of the speech. There was something smarmy–and deeply Clintonian–about offering a new promised land. What was wrong with the old promised land? On Martin Luther King Day, why not just quote Martin Luther King? There are some lines that aren’t about to be improved. Then again, even the weak lines in the speech were better than Merle Williams’ poem “Of History and Hope,” which was deeply awful, in a Children’s Defense Fund-school-of-verse sort of way. “The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?” Ugh.
Inaugural oddity: Barbara Walters was standing directly behind Clinton as he was sworn in. It was later explained to me that she was up there as the date of Virginia Sen. John Warner, who performed the honor of introducing the president. All you need to know about Warner is that the Washington Post once ran a profile of him titled, “If John Warner Is So Dumb, Why Is His Life So Good?” That headline didn’t survive past the first edition, but it was the right question.
There remained only the balls. S
’s Washington editor and I had been extensively warned that we would only be sorry if we attempted to attend one of these. There were horrible lines for everything; there was no parking, no food; we’d be nuts to check our coats; as reporters, we’d be penned up in tiger cages; if we escaped from these, we wouldn’t know a soul among the milling lobbyists and Rotarians. This was too much provocation, and in keeping with the journalistic principle “the worse, the better,” we were both looking forward to the misery. Our tickets were for the New York-Connecticut-Rhode Island ball at the Kennedy Center, where we headed at about 10 o’clock.
Maybe it was just the expectations game, but the party was painless, bordering on pleasant. We parked in the underground parking lot and glided through the metal detectors just behind Harvey Keitel. There was no problem with coats, and no tiger cages. The entertainment was the band 10,000 Maniacs, which even the older folks seemed to find tolerable. The Clintons showed up shortly after midnight, did a little dance, made little jokes, and moved on. Even the guests were interesting. One man was introduced to us as an “underboss” from Staten Island. He boasted about “knocking off” a judge. I’m pretty sure he was referring to a recent election, but I didn’t question him too closely.