That Time I Almost Got Arrested At An Inauguration Party For George W. Bush

May 4, 2018

I always enjoyed covering presidential inaugurations.

Except for the time I came within an eyelash of getting arrested at one.

It would have been a shame to be arrested, because I really love inaugurations – from the formal balls, to the solemn swearing-in, to the joyous parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

They are majestic. They are full of pomp and circumstance. They take place on the west steps of the Capitol, looking out across a throng of Americans from every corner of the nation, the witnesses to history being made. The embodiment of our nation's peaceful transfer of power.

There's nothing in political journalism quite like standing near the Capitol steps and looking down the National Mall to the Washington Monument; to the World War II Memorial; to Abraham Lincoln sitting as if in judgment of the union he saved; and beyond the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery, where so many thousands of American heroes lie in rest.

I get chills just thinking about it.

I've been lucky enough to cover four of them, all for the Cincinnati Enquirer:

  • Bill Clinton (January 1993 and January 1997)
  • George W. Bush (January 2005 – I missed the first one because my niece got married that day)
  • and Barack Obama (January 2009), which was the biggest celebration of them all

They were all thoroughly enjoyable experiences, even though they involved a lot of hard work, giving readers back home a flavor of what an inauguration was like and what the local people who had traveled to Washington, D.C. thought about being part of an historic event.

But, in January 2005, I had a somewhat untoward event take place at, of all places, the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., photographed in 2017.
Credit Pedro Szekely / Flickr Creative Commons

I went to D.C. for several days leading up to the January 20 swearing-in of George W. Bush for a second term. Photographer Michael E. Keating, my partner on many a campaign excursion, was with me to chronicle the Inaugural Week activities.

Our primary mission was to cover it from an Ohio perspective. Hundreds of Ohio Republicans showed up in Washington for the event, with many of them staying in the rather plush Washington Court Hotel, five blocks north of the Capitol. It was the Ohio Republican Party headquarters during the Inaugural festivities.

If you were an Ohio Republican, you were treated like royalty by the Bush people, who were working with the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural ceremonies.

On the night of January 20, after Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had been sworn in to new terms in office and the inaugural parade had made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Ohio crowd streamed into Ballroom E of the Washington Convention Center for its own official black-tie inaugural ball.

Ohio was given its own party, while most other states were forced by the Inaugural committee to cram in elbow-to-elbow with other states at one of the eight other Inaugural balls.

And why was Ohio treated so kindly?

Because most people believe it was the voters of the Buckeye State who gave Bush 43 a second term in the White House.

If Bush had lost Ohio, Keating and I would have been attending the inauguration of John Kerry, the 44th President of the United States.

But that was not to be.

And Ohio was the star of the show in Washington, D.C. that week.

Two nights before the big day, the Ohio Republican Party decided to throw itself a massive inauguration party – for Buckeyes only.

They rented out the Smithsonian Institution's entire National Air and Space Museum for an evening of music, dancing, drink and food among the most impressive display of aviation history this side of Dayton's National Air Force Museum.  

When we arrived in Washington, Keating and I were given packets of background information from the Inaugural committee and the Ohio Republican Party.

I was somewhat surprised to find in my packet from the Ohio Republican Party's press operation an official invitation to the Ohio Republican Party's celebration at the Air and Space Museum. Keating had one in his packet too.

We both jumped into our tuxedos (the "monkey suits,'' as I call them).

Keating had a bag of photo gear; I, as the newspaper reporter, needed nothing more than a notebook and a couple of working ballpoint pens. We took off on the D.C. Metro subway system to the Smithsonian stop.

It was getting dark and we could see the Ohio partiers inside, but we couldn't figure out which entrance to use. We finally found one where well-dressed Republicans were filing in, and Michael and I, our invitations in hand, filed in behind them.

Michael and I walked around the museum, which always has been my favorite among the Smithsonian venues. He was snapping photos; I had my notebook out, talking to various Ohio Republicans.

In other words, doing journalist stuff.

This was Bush 43's second inauguration, so it didn't quite have the excitement of the first one in January 2001, when the Republicans gathered in Washington to take back the White House they had lost eight years before.

But the Ohio folks were highly charged, believing they had handed President Bush another term in the White House. And they were showing it at the National Air and Space Museum.

Michael and I were doing our thing when suddenly a uniformed security guard blocked our way.

"No photographs in the museum,'' he barked at us.

We were wearing our inauguration media credentials in lanyards around our necks.

"No media in the museum,'' the guard barked. "This is a private event."

Yes, I said, and we are invited guests. We whipped out our invitations from the Ohio Republican Party to the soiree.

"You are not allowed in here,'' the guard said. "You must leave on your own or be escorted out."

Wait a minute, I said, are you telling me that you are having a private event and you are going to throw out invited guests?

"Yes, if you refuse to leave on your own."

A few more uniforms showed up, surrounding us. The guy who had stopped us got on his radio and called somebody from the museum administration.

A fellow in a suit came up to us, shook hands and introduced himself. I can't remember his name, but I do recall that he was a fairly high-ranking administrator of the museum.

Yet our suits were better than his.

"We often rent out the facility for private events during the hours when the museum is closed to the public,'' The Suit said. "This is one of those occasions. The Ohio Republican Party has rented this space."

Yes, and being invited guests, we are well aware of that, I said.

Michael and I were, by this time, pretty much surrounded by uniforms and suits.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rep. Steve Chabot of Westwood walking by.

Steve! Steve! Come over here a minute!

I got his attention and he walked over.

Gentlemen, I said, this is Congressman Steve Chabot of the First District of Ohio. I live in his district. Steve, these gentlemen want to throw us out of here, even though we have invitations. What do you think of that?

"Well, that doesn't sound right to me,'' Chabot said. Score one for the good guys.

But it was not a long-lasting victory. Almost immediately, one of Chabot's friends saw him and called him away; the congressman left us to talk to his friend about some topic more interesting than our fate.

"Gentlemen, you are trespassing here,'' The Suit said. "You must leave now or you will be escorted out."

I asked The Suit to wait a minute; I wanted to consult with my associate.

I pulled Keating aside. He and I both knew the truth of the matter – they didn't really care if we were there or not; they were afraid that we would take photos of high-ranking Republicans tipping wine glasses, draining beer bottles or gulping down martinis.

In other words, they didn't want potentially embarrassing photos of their guests drinking.

I went over to The Suit.

Look, I know what your problem is, I told him. You're worried that we're going to take photos of some bigfoot Republican guzzling booze and whoopin' it up in public.

Well, we're not interested in taking photos of these people drinking. Am I right, Michael?

Michael agreed.

You go ask Bob Bennett (then the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party). He has known me for many, many years. He will tell you that I am a man of my word. And we are giving you our word.

The suits and the uniforms gathered in a circle and buzzed over my proposal for a while.

Eventually, The Suit emerged.

"Alright, gentlemen. You are here. There will be no photos of people drinking, understood? Fine. Enjoy your evening at the Air and Space Museum."

We toddled off, determined to do our jobs.

I turned around and shouted as The Suit and his cohorts were walking away.

How about photos of people eating cheese cubes? That OK?

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

"Tales from the Trail" is Howard Wilkinson's weekly column that gives a behind-the-scenes look at his more than 40 years of coering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. Read more of these features here