Inaugural Outsider

Inaugural Outsider

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 21 1997 3:30 AM

Inaugural Outsider

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       Sunday's Washington Post brought some surprising news: The president is actually popular. His approval rating stands at 60 percent, its highest mark since he was sworn in four years ago. Well, I'm not claiming a statistically valid sample, but you wouldn't know it from hanging around at his inauguration. After three days spent talking to people who came to Washington to see the president sworn back in, I don't think I've picked up a single enthusiastic word about him. A Catholic priest I met at a party for people from Chicago did tell me he had prayed for Clinton--but that's literally the nicest thing I've heard all weekend.
       The Post poll does suggest that Clinton's popularity is not a simple business. By significant margins, people say he is not honest and trustworthy, and that he lacks high standards of personal integrity. Successful politicians typically fall into one of two categories. There are those who are respected, like Margaret Thatcher, and those who are liked, like Ronald Reagan. These days it is hard to think of any, like FDR and JFK, who are both liked and respected. But Clinton seems to have added a new layer of complexity to this formula. He is neither much liked nor well respected. Nonetheless, he is approved of.
       How do we explain this anomaly? (This was the wonderful euphemism chosen by a NASA flight controller to describe the satellite that exploded in midair a few seconds after being launched from Cape Canaveral on Friday. "We have an anomaly," she noted with cool understatement, as the rocket burst into flaming bits over the heads of spectators.) One possibility is that political popularity is merely a referendum on the times. America is prosperous and at peace, so people will say they like the president even though they think he's pretty much of a worm. That's part of it, but I don't think it fully answers the mystery. Over the holidays I was in London, where John Major is disliked, disrespected, and disapproved of, despite a booming economy and a truce with Brussels.
       No, my current theory--pending the emergence of a better one--is that these contradictory sentiments signify a new maturity on the part of the electorate. We don't ask that our politicians be angels, that they inspire, edify, elevate, amuse, or charm us. Those things would be nice, but we're prepared to settle for reasonable competence. Where politicians get into trouble is in confusing qualified approval, which is a kind of probationary status, with a green light for sweeping change. Both Clinton and Gingrich made this mistake when they first took power. Neither is likely to make it again.
       In keeping with this new realism, the atmosphere in Washington is almost totally unfestive. Four years ago, there was a real sense of celebration. A friend of mine made his own inaugural T-shirts and gave them out. This time, you get the feeling that nobody is doing anything without overtime pay or the hope of career advancement. A "Clinton volunteer" would be an anomaly. This mood probably falls upon all reinaugurations to some extent. I wasn't here in 1904 or 1985, so I can't say for sure. Still, this one seems especially perfunctory.
       The ongoing Clinton campaign-finance scandal is helping to put a damper on things. Every reporter in town is on the prowl for episodes of indulgence or influence. For this reason, lobbyists are being as furtive and understated as possible. Conspicuous consumption is a no-no, conspicuous consumption with an Asian theme a super no-no. I haven't seen an egg roll since I got here. The glam event of the weekend was the MTV/Condé Nast party on Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery. This was a perfectly pleasant party, but it had nothing on the bash MTV threw last time. That was a full-scale, black-tie ball: R.E.M. played; virgins were sacrificed; and so on. This time it was just music videos and fluorescent martinis. Frankly, I miss the wretched excess. What's the point of an inauguration if you can't go Roman for a few days?
       Most pathetic of all has been the celebrity contingent. At the MTV party were such demi-luminaries as Kevin Spacey, Jimmy Smits, and Whoopi Goldberg. Is this the best Clinton can do? I would think that the president could get pretty much anyone he wanted to show up for his inaugural. Nonetheless, his televised "gala" had the air of the MGM Grand in receivership. Perhaps when you subtract known Republicans, rumored drug abusers, and resident aliens, there are no good popular entertainers left. Still, the gala could have been worse. Mikhail Baryshnikov doing Marcel Marceau and the homage to Kenny G's ancestors were enjoyably awful--what Alex Heard once memorably called "hathos." And then there was the architectural drama of Aretha Franklin's dress.
       Speaking of bad entertainment, what's the deal with Whoopi Goldberg? Is she totally unfunny, or what? Her performance in the "American Journey" tent on the mall was an insult to people who came a long way to stand in the cold. Winging it, she started off with an incredibly weak riff about how people in Maryland have a lot of air fresheners in their cars. ("What's up with that? Do people in Maryland eat really smelly food, or what?") She then took questions, which were mostly, Can I have my picture taken with you? and Can I have your autograph? Soon she was opining about abortion and the welfare-reform bill. "You may be wondering, What's the deal with this welfare bill? Is it too harsh, or what?" And so on in that vein.
       Officially, the theme of the festivities is "An American Journey: Building the Bridge to the 21st Century." This is not just a mixed metaphor, it's a non sequitur. What exactly is the "journey"? Conventional syntax would suggest that the journey is building the bridge--but how can building a bridge be a journey? It would have been more coherent, if no less banal, to set the theme as "An American Project: Building the Bridge to the 21st Century." Or even "An American Journey: How Bill and Al Got Back to the White House." But my suggestion would have been a Whoopi Goldberg variation: "What's the Deal With This Inauguration?: Is This Party Over Yet, or What?"

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.