I have lived through the last 17 Presidential Inaugurations, including one I attended in person and another that I was assigned to cover. In each case, I was struck by the majesty and awe of the occasion, and that includes our most recent inauguration, despite its scaled-down nature.
My family’s history with Presidential inaugurals dates back to January 1953, when my parents were invited to attend General Dwight Eisenhower’s first swearing-in. Mom and Dad were life-long Republicans, and Dad had even been one of Ike’s campaign directors in North Carolina. I still have the engraved invitations that my Dad received to attend the ceremony and formal Ball that year. Publicly, Eisenhower made history by taking the oath on two different Bibles, one that had been used by George Washington, and the other that Ike had kept from his days at West Point. Behind the scenes, there was tension between the Eisenhowers and the Trumans. Ike agreed to ride with Harry to the Capitol but refused to come in for refreshments beforehand. Still, President Truman observed tradition and attended his successor’s big event. Back then, outgoing Presidents didn’t dare break protocol. Not so today.
Sixteen years later, on Monday, January 20, 1969, I accompanied my parents to Richard Nixon’s first Inauguration. It was 35 degrees outside, and the rain wasn’t the only thing freezing that day. After about a half-hour, I could no longer feel my feet. Those were the days before TV weather forecasters talked about wind chill, but it felt more like 10 degrees than 35. On that day, Nixon gave the nation hope that he would end the Vietnam War, and he made good on that promise. In doing so, he probably saved me from coming home in a body bag. During his six years in office, Nixon would do many other good things and one very bad one. I first met Richard Nixon when I was just a child, at which time I told him that I had been his campaign manager for a mock election held at my grade school in 1960. I scored a win for Nixon at Brunson Elementary, but JFK won the national election. Upon hearing of my service to his campaign, Mr. Nixon touched his finger to my face and told me that one day I would become President. It was the first time that a President ever lied to me, and, as it turns out, it wasn’t the last.
Perhaps the busiest news day in inaugural history was on Tuesday, January 20, 1981. As Ronald Reagan prepared to take his oath of office, 52 American hostages, who had been kidnapped a year earlier, had just been released by Ayatollah Khomeini and were on a flight bound for Washington D.C. On that day, CBS was short-staffed, so the network hired me to stake out the State Department and cover any announcements that might be forthcoming. I had covered candidate Reagan during the campaign, but this was different. It was inauguration day, and history was unfolding on two fronts simultaneously. As it turns out, the hostages landed safely, and my journalistic services were barely needed. However, I did get to see a lot of celebrities who paraded in and out of the State Department to attend a pre-inaugural party. Among them were Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers, the latter of whom I had met when I was 12 years old. On that occasion, I had told Ms. Rogers that she had great legs. On the day of Reagan’s inauguration, I reminded her who I was, and believe it or not, she remembered the incident and laughed loudly during our brief reunion. That evening, I watched fireworks from my hotel room and reflected upon what had transpired on that historic day.
I suppose I’ve watched every inaugural ceremony since then, but only from a distance. Still, I felt a personal connection to the recent Biden/Harris festivities, almost as if I had worked on their campaign or was a friend of the family. The reason is that, like millions of Americans who witnessed the Capitol insurrection, which occurred just two weeks earlier, I was heavily invested in wanting those thugs and the rest of the world to see that our institutions and traditions were still in place. That’s why, on that day, Lady Gaga’s rendition of our National Anthem held a special meaning for me. On that day, Joe Biden’s speech gave me hope that we could defeat two pandemics at a time - one medical, one social. And on that day, I was reassured that America would have many more inaugurations in her future. To paraphrase our new President, we endured, and we prevailed.