Dennis Loy Johnson’s The Big Chill

In going through Dennis Loy Johnson’s The Big Chill, an eyewitness account of George W. Bush’s inauguration day in January 2001, it is hard to believe that one is reading about the president of the world’s biggest superpower rather than about the potentate of a banana republic, who, fearful of the masses, must be protected by an army of police officers and members of the secret service just so he can go from one building to the next on his inauguration day.

Johnson had traveled to the presidential inauguration with the intent of joining a demonstration organized by the National Organization of Women and a nonprofit group called Voter Rights. But what he witnessed was far larger than anything he’d been prepared for. The protesters had turned up en masse, despite the freezing rain, the checkpoints that had been put in place, the frisking by police, the stiff rules about signage, and a host of other disincentives that could have compelled them to stay at home.

In meticulous detail, Johnson describes the mounting protests, the chants (Hail to the Thief!), the signs (my favorite was “Clarence Thomas: The Only Black Vote That Was Counted”), and the skirmishes with police. He dispels the notion that the protesters were a “fringe element” composed of young kids, anarchists or WTO sympathizers. Instead, he says, his fellow protesters were both young and old, some angry with the election itself and some objecting to what the man who stole it stood for.

This could have made for fantastic news coverage were it not for the fact that the press hurried by in two trucks, with their video cameras and telephoto lenses lowered. They went past the crowd and waited inside the heavily guarded area around the White House. Soon after, and in a break with a twenty year old tradition, George W. Bush rushed by in his limo down Pennsylvania Avenue to the compound of the White House, where the invitation-only crowd was composed of generous donors to his campaign.

After the protest, Johnson went home to find that the NY Times had achieved the impossible: on its front page, it had a picture of a smiling President and First Lady, waving at the crowd during the inauguration parade. How could that be? Johnson provides a survey of the rest of the press, which, with the exception of the Post and NPR, largely followed the Times’ lead. The failure of the press to play the role it should have in a democracy is the biggest question in this book and one that continues to be raised long after that inauguration day. But, once people started communicating their thoughts by email and putting them up on the Internet, (that last bastion of free speech) news of what really happened that day came out. Johnson provides the testimonials of people who managed to get inside the compound (since they weren’t allowed to carry signs, they had written their messages on their arms and torsoes and waited for an opportune moment to strip.)

If, like many others, you stared in shock at the footage of the inaugural day protests during Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, you would do well to read this first-person account of what really happened. The Big Chill is an important document, made all the more relevant by the upcoming election.