Their journeys begin in distant cities and towns with names like Abilene, Beaumont and Laramie. They set out stacks of clothes and study Let’s Go! Washington D.C. They secretly compare themselves to those privileged to hear Martin Luther King’s clarion baritone boom forth from the steps to Lincoln’s marble throne, but immediately they question that comparison, in the studied and self-conscious manner of their mentor, whose every dissertation ends in a verbal quandary, almost as if on purpose. They mark their places in “Modern Electoral Politics, Fourth Edition” and “Politics and the Press” and check again to make sure they’ve packed enough underwear.
In the airports and bus terminals of America’s connecting hubs the spontaneous travelers begin converging. Strangers introduce themselves and exchange homemade buttons and bumper stickers. It becomes fashionable to refer to the journey and the planned gathering as simply “the Event.” So fervent is the shared belief in the meaning of the Event that it transforms mundane artifacts into historic souvenirs so long as they refer to, or prove one’s participation in, the Event. Kids begin collecting one another’s signatures in copies of “The Emergence of Triangulation,” their cultural hero’s definitive collection of political essays, and the fad takes wing. Airport bookstores quickly sell out their copies of the soft paperback. Harried bookstore cashiers ask aloud what is going on, half jokingly and half out of concern for their ignorance. The air is charged with authenticity. He practically invented the term conventional wisdom, people say. Then it is time to move on. As quickly as the crowds formed, they depart. Young women in halter tops hoist overloaded backpacks onto fragile shoulders. Parents who moments before proudly introduced their children to strangers just as quickly steer them away.
That night Washington’s hotels are besieged by their arrival. On every corner the new immigrants survey their surroundings and wonder where they can get a good dinner, maybe meet a kindred traveler with a story to tell. Young people drop their heavy backpacks in the crowded lobbies of youth hostels, jostling and joshing each other as they wait to sign in. Four college girls tumble out of a Volvo sedan—Ohio plates—to ring the doorbell of a suburban Maryland colonial belonging to college friends of their parents. On the top floor of a downtown Marriott an anonymous business traveler switches off an adult cable movie to turn her attention to “Affairs of State,” the second memoir of the man for whom the Event will be a feted coronation in the wake of a lifetime of toil.
Early the next morning they disembark from their hotels, first in straggles then in droves, an impromptu parade amassing in the streets. They leap from taxis, stream from revolving doors and spill from swift escalators ascending from underground Metro stations. By 10:00 a.m. the crowd has stopped traffic, driving bewildered commuters from their cars. The swelling congregation, now in the hundreds of thousands, gives the city’s broad avenues an unlikely claustrophobic feel. There are banners, horns and tambourines. There are young men talking urgently into bullhorns and passing out literature, church groups dressed in identical t-shirts, the occasional eccentric on stilts or a unicycle. There are couples holding hands, clusters of laughing friends, parents shouting directions to obedient children, a ceaseless wave of humanity. It rained the night before, but now the reemerging sun dries the damp streets. Because the parade has choked off traffic, the only sound behind the jubilant march is the eerie silence of the empty urban streets.
By noon the National Mall is a roiling, raucous human sea. No mere politician could draw this crowd, people say. He is the guru poet philosopher king of our age, they declare with enthusiastic nods. He practically invented the term conventional wisdom, they say again. There are kites pinned to the sky and banners strung across rooftops. They’ve done an excellent job with the main stage on such short notice. At its wings stacked amplifiers shout at the crowd. One hundred yards distant, rising from the dense populace, a mixing platform caps a gleaming tower of silver scaffolding. Behind the stage a plain mauve backdrop ripples gently in the breeze.
In hushed tones the proceedings begin. The speakers, in strident driving voices, deliver solemn incantations punctuated by light asides. The surging thrill of the moment lifts the voices of all but a few who drone haplessly, as is inevitably the case at such events. Yet most orators and poets are forceful, impassioned, heartbreakingly eloquent. Their amplified voices echo cacophonously down the Mall’s low canyon of Greek revival museums. The program accommodates a few lone folk singers. Jewell sings passionately, a capella, about a lost and unrequited love, bringing the roaring crowd to its feet.
When he is introduced, David Gergen rises from the dais, his supreme self-confidence betrayed only by his trembling lower lip, which quivers with awe layered over heartfelt fear. His eyes are jade stones floating in tears. This is how Caesar must have felt when he addressed the Coliseum, he thinks, and makes a mental note to work that reference into some semi-impromptu aside, probably near the end, after he has already gained the crowd’s trust and affection. I practically invented the term conventional wisdom, he reassures himself. Then he walks, in apparent serenity, to the microphone, to stand before the thousands upon thousands amassed before him in reverent captivation, their hearts eager to hang on his every word.