Inaugural Weekend, Always a Big Deal

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy
John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy

You might be hearing media chatter around town that the upcoming second-term inauguration of President Barack Obama is not as much excitement this time around, that there’s very little scuttlebutt surrounding the event on Monday, that it’s, well, no big deal.

For sure, this inauguration will not have any of the historic drama and precedent of Pres. Obama’s first inauguration four years ago when he became the first African American to be inaugurated as President of the United States and drew the largest crowds in the history of such events in Washington, D.C.

Don’t believe that blasé is king this time around. In this town, and in our country, and perhaps the world, the event itself has always been a big deal, a marker, an occasion full of certain kinds of majestic traditions and rituals, omens and portents, comings and goings, beginnings, endings and continuations, invocations and marching bands, cheers and cheerleaders. People always come by the thousands and people always remember.

If you have lived in Washington for any length of time, the presidential inauguration becomes a personal kind of occasion and memory, depending on the extent of your participation. There will be parades. There will be inaugural balls. There will be speeches and swearing in and perhaps even some swearing.

We live in an information age where we seem to know an awful lot about historic events, as if we’d been there and known the presidents personally—these days Ronald Reagan’s joke that “I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine,” seems not just a reference to an old campaign anecdote, but a state of mind.

For certain, the most romantic, most resonant, echoing imagery for almost any presidential inauguration was the one surrounding John F. Kennedy. The occasion—full of snow and cold and wintry weather and youthful optimism—spoke to just about everything in our political history and our feelings about our democracy. You could be forgiven if you think you remember just how cold it was, or still hear the stories of Kennedy’s resounding challenge to American citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you”, and the image of JFK and the older, serious Eisenhower riding together, top-hatted in the cold air. You think you remember the pre-eminent shaman poet of our times, Robert Frost, wintry hair, wintry voice, trying to remember the poem he wrote for the occasion, and you remember Jackie Kennedy, the first lady, fulfilling the promise of youthful, graceful, just plain high class beauty that was almost royal.

The longer I live in Washington, the more I can sometimes talk myself into thinking I was here for that cold January day in 1961. Watching Daniel Day Lewis in “Lincoln” makes me think I actually heard Lincoln’s second inauguration speech line that began “With malice toward none and charity toward all”. He opened his second term near the end of the war not far in time from his assassination.

These things matter, and not just if the president catches a cold. Until inaugurations were televised, people who did not attend, learned about them only through reportage. Now we know everything there is to know, but perhaps not as much as we should. Let me be honest—I have never attended an inaugural ball, but I remember how they looked, the glow, the dresses, occasions where even presidents not known for their romantic images can look endearing. Here, we got to see that Richard loved Pat, and George loved Laura and Nancy was crazy about Ron, and Barack and Michelle locked eyes to “At Last”. That music, that dance, those balls are part of inaugural lore. It’s where we first saw Nancy Reagan’s utterly genuine and adoring look.

I remember the cheers at the news of the release of the hostages when Reagan took the oath, remember the jeers as crowds noted the helicopter departure of George W. Bush. I remember turning around near a press section in front of the podium last inauguration and seeing those multitudes stretching energetically to the Washington Monument.

That was a big deal.

This will be too, differently, smaller, perhaps, but all the same a big deal, because all the same history is present, on this Monday, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s present with this man who gets to say again, “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear …”

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Tue, 29 Jul 2014 22:58:30 -0400

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