Inaugurations past and present a study in contrasts

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — (Friday’s) inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president (was) the 16th I’ve witnessed in Washington, in person or via television, going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. All have been confirmations of the marvel of continuity in the transition of national power.

I remember that Ike’s assumption of his second term, not surprisingly, came amid relative calm here after his second landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. The World War II hero and smiling icon basked in the public adoration as he and Mamie rode down Independence Avenue from the Capitol to the White House they had already been calling home for four years.

In 1961, when young and handsome John F. Kennedy, in a top hat, covered the same route with glamourous Jackie, near-delirium reigned despite a fierce overnight snowstorm. It required the shoveling services of numerous military units from nearby bases to clear the path for them and the inaugural parade that followed.

The night before, I made my way to the National Guard Armory on Capitol Hill as the president-elect and his wife enjoyed an hours-long parade of show-business celebrities who entertained them, with Frank Sinatra as producer and emcee. It took hours that night to get home to Alexandria, Va., but I was up early the next morning to see the swearing-in of the president of my generation whose campaign I covered from his New Hampshire primary victory on.

Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in understandably a more sober public mood after the JFK assassination that brought him to the office, took the oath amid his pledge to continue Kennedy’s agenda, especially the fight for civil rights.

In 1969, after Richard M. Nixon’s narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey, the inaugural mood again was somewhat muted, amid a nation split by the war in Vietnam that Nixon pledged to end with a secret plan he never revealed. In 1973, he nevertheless celebrated a landslide re-election. There was no sign yet of the cloud gathering over the previous summer’s Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee, the cover-up of which cost him the presidency in 1974.

In 1977, Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter brought a distinctly different flavor to the inauguration, vowing to the public he would “never lie to you.” But his inexperience with the ways of Washington left him vulnerable to another outsider of more charm and guile who took the oath in 1981 — former California governor and movie star Ronald Reagan.

The Gipper brought a heavy dose of charisma to a joyous Republican inauguration, and it was sustained at his 1985 swearing-in after his landslide victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale. In 1989, the inauguration of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, lacked similar enthusiasm in what many Republicans hoped would be akin to a third Reagan term, but it didn’t work out that way.

Another charismatic figure was now on the scene. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was elected over Bush in 1992, and was inaugurated among much jubilation in 1993 as a new kind of Democrat who had much of Reagan’s speaking talent and political skills.

Clinton’s 1997 inauguration celebration was somewhat less exuberant, and in 2000 his vice president, Al Gore sought to succeed him without employing Clinton much in his campaign. Gore lost after a contested Florida vote count to George W. Bush, whose inauguration occurred under a cloud of rancor over the Supreme Court’s intrusion in the election. Bush was re-elected in 2004, but the 2005 inaugural mood was tempered by the aftermath of his ill-conceived 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In 2009, Barack Obama’s swearing-in as the first African-American president brought the event to a height of public and enthusiasm not seen since Kennedy’s taking the oath 48 years earlier. By 2013, the acclaim for Obama’s second term seemed a bit less fulsome, but still warm.

Now comes Trump, with his supporters poised to raise the roof, so to speak, along with much protest and apprehension in other quarters also anticipated.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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