FIFE, POMPED UP
It takes a whole lot of water to wash four years' worth of pigeon dung off the faade of the Arizona State Capitol, but the government grounds crew is ready to meet the challenge. They're up in the air on a mechanical platform, shooting a mighty torrent of water onto the face of the grand old building, sending bits of hardened fowl waste raining down to the ground.
The air is ripe with metaphor. For just as Fife Symington has spent the past 1,460 days unloading his business upon the people of Arizona, the rats with wings have left their own particular mark, as well.
The boys are giving this place a good hosing, engaging in this humble tradition in preparation for the good governor's inauguration ceremony that will take place here tomorrow. I dodge the poop shower and approach a guy who looks to be in charge. "Heck of a job, eh?" I query as the spill-off cascades into a public drinking fountain. He squints at me and shrugs. "Well, we won't have to do this again 'til the next election."
It is a beautiful, crisp Friday morning at Phoenix's Trinity Cathedral, the first locale on a full dance card of inaugural events that will take Governor Symington through a smorgasbord of ceremony (his official swearing-in, earlier in the week, was a more private affair). Today's celebration will take him from prayerful partaking of the symbolic wafer and blood of Christ to preying on the more temporal grilled fillet of salmon and Chteau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay. It's all part of being a winner--and having tax dollars at your disposal.
When I pull up to the church, I expect to see hordes of religious Symington well-wishers, but the scene is calm. Only a handful of the faithful are present as I settle into a pew and take in the Episcopal decor. A man of the cloth sits next to me as the organ kicks in with an uplifting selection from the Bach catalogue; I ask him how long the service will last and he glances at the program. Obviously a pro, he sizes up the list of rituals and estimates 45 minutes.
Time passes, dirgelike, a few more followers filter in, but still there is no sign of the governor. And then the main doors at the rear of the church open wide, a thick shaft of Arizona sun bursts in like a heavenly spotlight. And there he is.
Surrounded by a phalanx of white-robed churchmen bearing staffs and a large wooden cross, Fife Symington--loyal wife, Ann, and children at his side--has arrived. We rise as one, the organ surges to the combined voices of the Chapman University choir exulting the hymn "Lobe den Herren" (rough translation: "Praise the Men") to a glorious, fevered pitch as Symington begins a solemn walk toward the altar. Our governor passes me, tightlipped, stern and nodding to familiar faces. The minister beside me softly hacks into his fist.
The next 45 minutes are taken up by your basic church service--singing, confession of sin, holy Communion, more singing, sermon, etc.--with the focus on blessing Symington's new term in office. The excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer printed in the program leaves little doubt that canny Fife is putting the fix in big-time with the Governor in the Sky. Or maybe I'm wrong; maybe Fife is the Lord the passage is referring to.
Our Lord, our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this state to your merciful care, that, being guided by your providence, we may dwell secure in your peace.
So much for the separation of church and state.
I head over to the Trinity lounge for postservice refreshments, and unexpectedly have a brief tàte--tàte with Symington himself at the hot-water urn. It goes something like this:
The gov: "Is this the hot water?"
The gov: "My throat is parched."
Me: "Speaking of throats, how about that choir?"
The gov: "Incredible. I was weeping. I thought I was going to lose my contacts."
Then Symington tells me a story about a vacation he and his wife took to Granada, Spain, and how they heard two organists play simultaneously in a cathedral and how wonderful the experience was. Never having been to Granada, Spain (nor even having heard two organists play simultaneously), I can only nod.
There is a pregnant moment of awkward silence as I find myself transfixed by his alabaster countenance. I take a gulp of scalding tea and somehow control the urge to spew it back out as the roof of my mouth turns to molten skin. Symington smiles thinly and removes himself. I edge past him toward the door to the sound of palms slapping against the Gubernatorial Back.
Frank Capra and Norman Rockwell working head to head could not have created a better inaugural setting at the freshly sterilized State Capitol; this is pure, small-town-America political celebration at its best. Red, white and blue bunting drapes the dais, a military band fills the air with strident, four-four patriotism, there is not a protester in sight. A couple thousand folks are standing around, the high-ranking Fifekateers planted in strategically assigned seats (John Dowd, the governor's fierce legal muscle, is stationed symbolically behind his client, near his wallet).
There're a lot of suits here, and one in particular stops me in my tracks. Right there in front of me is sportscaster turned congressman J.D. Hayworth. He's magnificent! Diabolical! Bigger than life! A Huey Long mated with the Michelin Man, this flesh-pressing monster of a politician is making his way through the crowd bellowing greetings that are more demands than questions. "How ya doin'!!" "How's it goin'!!" "How are ya!!" I'm in awe. His face is a thick mask of red meat surrounding a vote-getting grin permanently set on stun.
The masses close in his wake as lone bagpipes begin to wail in the distance, heralding the grand entrance of His Governorship. A corridor of saluting Elite Republican (National) Guard stands rigid, creating safe passage for Symington's procession to the stand. There he is again, tightlipped and nodding, contacts firmly in place.
Okay. The rest of this thing is pretty dull, with the usual mix of humble thank-yous and look-to-the-future-brightly speechifying. The magic word of the day seems to be "prayer." As if the church service weren't enough, Symington covers all the bases with a rabbi, a pastor and the chairman of the Hopi tribe taking turns bonding the Gov with their respective versions of the higher power. Finally, Symington puts his left hand on the Good Book and his right hand in the air, gives the correct replies, and he's done sworn. Local golden-throated chanteuse Alice Tatum closes the show with a moving version of "Amazing Grace." You can't be too safe.
The sun is down, the moon is up--it's party time!
Provided you can part with $600 (for the Gov's campaign war chest) and a can of food (for the United Food Bank). That's the toll to gain entrance to the Inaugural Ball at the swank Hyatt-Regency Hotel in Scottsdale.
Yes, you guessed it, it's a roomful of rich Republicans. From those who look like Thurston and Lovey Howell to the new breed of power-ready yups whose gowns and tuxes cost more than a used Saab, they're all here to wallow in victory. And what a Basha, I mean bash, it is! They're swilling fine champagne, nibbling on pan-smoked red mountain trout, boogieing down to the sounds of a band named--and I'm not making this up--Affinity.
But how to properly describe the passionate vibe of loyalty to ber Citizen Fife that pervades the room? Let me swipe a quote from the evening's program that the Gov swiped from no less a sentimentalist than William Shakespeare:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother: be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
What a clubby bunch!
Me, I gentle my condition with a Heineken and wander the room collecting odd glances from the band of brothers. I start chatting up a bartender, trying to coax any remotely interesting party stories out of him when the band kicks into "I Saw Her Standing There."
And then, just as Bill and Hillary took the stage to wail "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," Fife and Ann are up there at the mike with the band's singer, digging into the Beatles classic. The governor is rocking! Well, trying to, anyway. Actually, he is confronting an awesome truth: A politician can be utterly cool giving speeches before thousands, totally confident during press conferences, and never break a sweat in steamy court appearances, but trying to look laid-back and with-it singing rock 'n' roll is virtually impossible.
The man is a true honky.
But he's sure giving it the old college (Harvard '68) try, attempting to read the singer's lips and blurt the lyrics out in time. Which doesn't really work. I almost feel sorry for the guy. He might as well be undergoing a prostate exam from the look on his face. After the first couple of verses, Fife seems to have decided to cut his losses and concentrate on barking the familiar chorus and the words "night" and "tight."
The people in the crowd couldn't care less, of course, they're in a swelling, dancing frenzy, edging me off the floor. The song ends, I've seen enough. As I pass the valet parking on my way out, there's a graying, tuxedoed fat cat joshing with the eager valets--many of whom look vaguely Kato Kaelinish--and dragging on a cigar. "I'm looking for three boys to come work for me!" he tells the attendants. "Can you put together cardboard boxes? Take my number! Haw haw haw!!"
The night is done. Symington will be with us for the next four years. I stuff my souvenir 1995 Inaugural Ball poster (a Currier and Ives-like painting of elk on what appears to be a wintry Wyoming plain. Go figure.) into the trunk of my car and point the Camry south.
Downtown, the pigeons are circling the Capitol.
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