Republicans watch inauguration from the shadows

Some leave town and others stick around to welcome the Democratic president. 'This is their party,' a Republican lobbyist says.

January 21, 2009|Tom Hamburger

WASHINGTON — For once-powerful Republicans, there were two ways to get through Tuesday's inauguration -- and neither was without pain.

Some, such as former White House aide Suhail Khan, opted to stay in town and witness firsthand the historic transition, even though it meant hearing rebukes from the new president and worse from the inaugural crowd.

"The one sorry note were the boos" for President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said Khan, who was among a group of former Bush aides standing a short distance from Barack Obama as he was sworn in by Roberts.

"And singing the goodbye song," Khan said. "That was uncalled for."

Other Republican stalwarts, such as Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, stayed away. But that offered only so much protection.

"Even on television, it was a lot more emotional to watch George W. Bush depart the capital than I thought it would be," Reed said. "It's been more than 12 years that I have been involved with the Bush family political team, and it was difficult to watch it come to an end."

Americans swarmed to the capital to witness Obama's swearing-in, to catch glimpses of the nation's first African American president in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, or to dress up for the constellation of evening balls.

Many prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, joined the new president at inaugural events. McCain, who lost the presidency to Obama, was honored at an inaugural dinner Monday, as was former Bush Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

But there is another side to the inauguration ritual, an undercurrent of disappointment among those being replaced or watching their influence wane.

One of the city's most influential Republican lobbyists, Dirk Van Dongen, left Washington for New York and watched the inaugural address on television, glad to leave behind the traffic jams and sidewalks filled with Democrats.

"This is their party," Van Dongen said. "And they should have an open and clean playing field to celebrate their victory."

Other Republicans fled Washington for long weekends in Aspen or Palm Beach. Some who stayed found drink and sustenance at lobbyist-sponsored parties along the parade route, such as one hosted by the Carmen Group, a bipartisan Washington lobbying firm, which took over the upper floors of the National Council of Negro Women on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Others attended a rooftop party sponsored by Prism Public Affairs. One of the firm's members, Stuart Roy, an aide to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), called the event a success. "We ran out of vodka and eggs," he said.

Obama may have added to the sting for Republicans by including in his address seeming critiques of his predecessor, even as Bush sat steps away.

At one point, Obama said: "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed." At another, he said "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," adding that American power does not "entitle us to do as we please."

Even so, some Republicans said their frustration with November's election was tempered by the historic nature of the transition.

Khan said he found much to like about Obama's speech, noting that it sounded "conservative themes, like the need for individual responsibility and not depending solely on government."

Reed said he was unhappy with some of Obama's remarks. Nevertheless, as he watched the speech on TV from his Atlanta office, he felt a mix of awe at the swearing-in of the first African American president and sadness at the departure of a chief executive he thinks has been underappreciated.

Reed said the feeling of being politically marginalized was moderated by the memory of what happened after Bill Clinton was sworn in 16 years ago.

"We watched on television thinking we were seeing the greatest political talent since John F. Kennedy, and feeling that we would be in the wilderness forever," Reed said. "And yet, two years later, we Republicans had the biggest off-year election victory in history" and took control of Congress.

"My sense now is that it is never as bad as you think it is when you lose and are removed from power. And it's never as good as you think when you win," he said.


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