Partisanship on the Hill Takes a Breather at Inauguration

Posted January 20, 2005 at 4:26pm

The partisanship that has divided Washington officially took a holiday on Thursday, as once and future adversaries held their breath and joined in two-centuries-old traditions of pomp and circumstance that submerged the disputes of the day.

As they exited the inaugural platform erected on the Capitol’s West Front, Democrats and Republicans alike expressed praise for President Bush’s 20-minute address.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — who officially challenged the legitimacy of Ohio’s electoral vote earlier this month — called Inauguration Day “a wonderful moment to pause and reflect on the fact that we have elections.”

The spirit of comity was in full flower during the roughly 90-minute inaugural luncheon, the toughest ticket of the week to score.

At the luncheon, sponsored by the Congressional leadership, Bush was feted before a crowd filled with six Supreme Court justices, three former presidents, most of his Cabinet from the first term, a few of his second-term nominees and almost all of the leaders from the House and Senate.

“What a day,” Bush said to the audience gathered in Statuary Hall after they finished up a three-course meal. A tradition dating back to President William McKinley’s swearing-in in 1897, the luncheon serves as Congress’ way of welcoming the start of the new presidential term in an intimate setting, a marked contrast to the tens of thousands who gather on the West Lawn of the Capitol and down the Mall to hear the inaugural speech.

Reflecting on his speech, Bush told the luncheon that it was “incredibly moving” for Chief Justice William Rehnquist to administer the oath of office despite his battles with thyroid cancer since October. “I want you to know how touched I was,” he said. Rehnquist, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and David Souter, did not attend the lunch.

No detail is left wanting for the luncheon, right down the painting that is chosen to serve as the backdrop to the head table, this year’s being “Wind River, Wyoming,” painted by a 19th century artist named Albert Bierstadt.

The lunch is always a genial moment where some of the world’s most powerful people get to mingle in a setting that might ordinarly seem impossible — such as Bush’s top political strategist, Karl Rove, seated at table No. 7 along with former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, Victoria.

Rove was the chief architect of the plan that denied Kennedy’s choice, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a White House victory, and the two pleasantly enjoyed each other’s company, although afterward Kennedy made clear through a joke that they didn’t get into the details of the campaign.

“We talked it all over. We worked it all out — the whole agenda,” he said. “We’re going to do health care and fully fund No Child Left Behind.”

In the age of a permanent war on terror, the continuity of government is always a critical issue, especially involving an event that includes the entire chain of presidential succesion. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who as President Pro Tem is behind Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in succession, did not attend the luncheon.

Instead, Stevens’ daugher, Lily, attended and sat at table 15 next to first daughter Jenna Bush and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), along with Justice John Paul Stevens and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

No matter how much money one raises for a campaign, lobbyists are not permitted in Statuary Hall for the luncheon — unless, of course, they are married to Congressional leaders, as are at least a handful of lobbyist/spouses in attendance Thursday, including: Rebecca Cox, wife of House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and a Continental Airlines lobbyist; Kim Dorgan, wife of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurers; and appropriations lobbyist Catherine Stevens, wife of Sen. Stevens.

Many moments of chummy bipartisanship ensued, including a — sort of — high five between Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell. Comfortable talking to Democrats, Powell walked into the hall and dove into a circle of Members of the minority party, then quickly bolted off into a corner so he could check his cellphone.

In what may be their only bear-hug for the next two years, Emanuel joyously greeted his biggest competitor, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Always a gentleman, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) helped the other first daughter, Barbara Bush, off with her coat and into her seat at table 19, which also included close friend of the president Roland Betts, a New York Democrat who attended Yale with Bush and is now one of his top money men in Manhattan.

Despite his icy relationship with the administration — Vice President Cheney’s swearing at him on the Senate floor was widely reported last summer — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) happily attended the lunch, with his handy camera, as always, in tow. Leahy, an extreme photo afficianado, used both digital shots and old-fashioned film to take pictures throughout the day, a tradition that goes back to at least President Ronald Reagan’s second swearing-in in 1985 when Leahy took the late president’s favorite shots of the day. Reagan sent Leahy a note after the inauguration: “Pat, I can’t believe my favorite picture was taken by a Democrat.”

The entire inaugural festivities are run by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is essentially headed by the leaders of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). The day was particularly fun for Lott, a chance to bask in the national spotlight for the first time since he was pusehd out of leadership in December 2002 after his remarks about the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) segregationist presidential campaign.

While Bush’s hand was widely seen as a behind-the-scenes reason for Lott’s ultimate demise, Lott never let any bitterness show Thursday. Although he couldn’t resist one poke at Texans when he talked to the luncheon crowd about his decision to have roasted Missouri quail as the second course.

Lott turned and looked at Bush and quipped, “We wanted Texas quail, but they were so skinny and skimpy.”

Lott then oversaw the presentation of Congressional gifts to the president, including two 18-inch lamps that had a silver-plated base engraved with Bush’s name and today’s date. The president and vice president also received photographs taken during their respective oaths of office, pictures that were taken around noon and instantly developed and then framed. Also, two flags that flew over the Capitol during the inauguration were presented to Bush and Cheney.

In his remarks the president stuck mostly to thanking those in attendance and talked generally about the struggles ahead for the nation as it pursues “a cause larger than ourselves.”

“I’m looking forward to putting my heart and soul into this job for four more years,” he said.

Prior to the luncheon, Members’ comments combined relief at the bipartisan atmosphere with some concern about notes of anxiety in the president’s speech.

While Boxer said she thought President Bush’s address “was delivered masterfully,” she also called it a “down speech” that suggested that “there’s trouble brewing and that America has to take care of the world.”

Others echoed that assessment.

“I think it was consistent with the themes that the administration has been laying out over the last few months,” said newly elected Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) “Clearly the president is putting his focus on foreign policy. Apparently this is the legacy he wants to set for himself. As I said in the Foreign Relations Committee the other day, all of us are rooting for his success. My hope is that he fosters the openness and the dialogue between the parties to allow for that success.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called it “a historic inaugural that will explain America’s role in the world for several generations.”

Saying that Bush needs to outline specifics in his State of the Union address, Gingrich said that the president’s challenge “is simple: To the degree he can rouse the American people, they will convince Congress to go along. And to the extent he can’t, he will have a hard time getting things done. It’s the problem of any president who wants to achieve great things.”

Perhaps the most awkward appearance of the day was that of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) who narrowly lost a hard-fought race with Bush for a second term.

Kerry politely declined to speak with reporters after exiting the ceremony, where he sported a blue scarf and clapped in all the appropriate places.

The crowd reaction outside, however, was less sanguine. When Kerry came out to take his seat, his image on the Jumbotron attracted more than a few boos from the crowd.

A visitor in the crowd summarized the thoughts of many, asking: “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

Bree Hocking and John McArdle contributed to this report.