Political Hay

Freedom Day

Not everyone was red-white-and-blue nice in ultra-secure Washington last week.

By 1.23.05

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My Inauguration Day adventure began early, with a small prayer to whoever the patron saint of those with poor senses of direction may be. By my best estimation, I concluded that whichever way the fully camouflaged National Guardswoman outside my hotel was facing must be due east. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other in the cold air, no doubt cursing what could only be her decorative posting. After all, what self-respecting terrorist in town for the inauguration would attack a street of deserted businesses fifteen blocks from the Capitol?

Upon reaching the corner I searched the horizon for more National Guard members, but there were too many to choose from, and so instead I began hiking in the same general direction of the black helicopter rumbling overhead. Fear thee not, readers from Midwestern militias and the John Birch Society: Of course I peered up at the underside of the machines first to be sure there weren't any United Nations or Trilateral Commission markings signifying a New World Order coup. With this patriotic duty fulfilled, I moved forward.

It wasn't long before my chicken legs lost out to spinning blades in the race across the city, and a new tact was in order. Like manna from heaven, a family wearing cowboy hats and American flag T-shirts meandered by. And then another. And another. Suddenly such families were passing by me with more regularity than cabs or buses. Actually, a similar phenomenon had led me to my gate at Logan Airport in Boston a few days earlier.

I followed this family closely -- but not too closely. I figured outside of the National Mall, the South Carolina GOP contingent (they had embroidered cowboy hats) might assume anyone following too closely would have a nefarious intent. Instead, I got a friendly, "Howdy! Where are you from?" out of them, and some chummy conversation. Still, they had official tickets and I did not, so we parted ways and I decided to see what the black outfitted anarchist brigade congregating on Constitution Ave. had going on.

Immediately my tie and the fancy boy long jacket my in-laws got me for Christmas singled me out as an infidel in the land of mad-at-their-dads fundamentalists. These bitter enders, much reduced in number from protests of the past two years, wielded the same oddly nonsensical signs and slogans as their predecessors, but lacked the jubilant pre-election assurances that they were doing God's work and would be rewarded with a Bush defeat. The only major shift in rhetoric was from "the proletariat will rise and take back their country" to, "the proletariat are racist, homophobic, war-mongers who must be stopped." Such is the fate of the proletariat when it fails to vote the "right" way.

"Hey, save your fetus, we need it for the war effort," an angry young woman sputtered at me as I leaned into their circle.

Now, yes, I've put on some weight, but not that much. Having just been told by the tailor at Mr. Tux two days before that I should stop fibbing about having a 36-inch waist, I was a bit sensitive.

"Hey, I'm not pregnant," I told my dreadlocked twentysomething nemesis. "I got a belly, but I'm working on it almost every day at the gym."

I readily accept my lack of comedic prowess, but even this small attempt at diffusive humor was useless in such a single-minded, tin-eared crowd.

"Your flag won't get you into heaven," a young man with a faux bullet belt strapped around his waist retorted.

What is wrong with these people? I'm not pregnant. I wasn't carrying a flag. My only crime was attempting to pay attention to the goings-on in their little club. Wasn't that the point of a protest? To make a point? I gave up and left them to their whispers and magic marker sign making.

I asked the next cop I met where a hapless, ticketless chap might go to enjoy the bloodless transition of power we so harp on every four years. The cop pointed me to some Boy Scouts, who pointed me to some Secret Service agents, who asked me to open my coat to prove I wasn't wearing a bomb and to turn on my cell phone so they could…I don't know. Maybe they wanted to make sure I didn't have a stupid ring tone or Osama bin Laden's number on my speed dial. Then they directed me to the next set of cops, Boy Scouts, and Secret Service agents so they could check me out again.

By the third security check, my mind began to wander and I thought about how ridiculous it was that after a couple hundred years of bloodless transitions, cable news anchors reporting from the inaugural still found it necessary to remind us every five minutes that this was to be a celebratory event and not a violent struggle for power. Stating and restating the obvious is apparently a byproduct of the 24 hour news cycle.

By the time President Bush began his speech I had still not gotten far enough to actually see him, but loudspeakers had been set up. The distorted buzz of the speakers made it feel as if the teacher from the

Peanuts cartoon strip was being inaugurated. Anyway, I got the gist of it: Eventually we want the rest of the world to experience American style freedom -- you know, being herded like cattle by Boy Scouts, hour-long lines at metal detectors, and being felt up by bomb-sniffing Secret Service agents while their colleagues play with your phone. Hey, at least I didn't get tossed in jail this time.

Personally, I have my own way of celebrating freedom -- with a nice spinach and cheese calzone. So immediately after the speech I beat a path over to Union Station, which on the outside was entirely mobbed by folks trying to get on the Metro. I only wanted to get to the food court, so I slipped under the red velvet rope line, and, followed by several Asian tourists, entered Union Station itself, which was completely and eerily empty. We almost made it to the escalator before cops came out of the woodwork, surrounding us, yelling.

"This is a high security area," one SWAT-team looking guard shouted at me. "We're talking serious security."

Maybe so. If it is, the government might want to hire me as a consultant, since I was able to breach "serious security" with a crack team of Asian tourists snapping pictures the entire way. Instead of a job offer, though, I was just booted out of the building unceremoniously, where I got into line with everyone else, and, after a small delay, got my calzone just the same.

And, despite all the hassles, I have to say: Freedom tasted pretty darn good that day.

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