By Burt Solomon
January 19, 2001Rumors swept through the capital that the Democratic nominee, who had been so narrowly and (to his partisans) so unfairly defeated, was coming to Washington to have himself sworn in as President. This would mean a coup d'etat, in effect, or a civil war. Armed troops patrolled the rooftops along Pennsylvania Avenue to avert the feared violence at the inaugural parade. Two Supreme Court Justices who had sided with the Democrats in deciding the election boycotted the swearing-in at the Capitol. Fistfights broke out in the crowd; men got bloodied and women fainted. The cheers blended with the boos and with the first known use at a presidential inaugural of the vulgar sounds of disgust favored by Bronx Democrats. The new President sought to use his inaugural address to overcome the suspicious circumstances of his election, which had been resolved only 48 hours earlier. "He serves his party best who serves the country best," proclaimed the nation's 19th chief magistrate, Rutherford B. Hayes, known to opponents as "His Fraudulency." After the months of political wrangling that followed the excruciatingly close 1876 election, "Hayes had a terrible mandate," said Ari Hoogenboom, a Hayes biographer and professor emeritus of history at Brooklyn College. During his tenure in the Executive Mansion, Hayes' lack of a mandate showed. The first half of his term was noted for partisan contentiousness, not only with the vanquished Democrats, but also with his fellow Republicans, who resisted the threat that Hayes' support for civil service reform posed to their powers of patronage. Time and again, a presidential inauguration has foreshadowed the Administration that followed, or has even played a role in determining its fate. "It's an important day--it can help in setting a tone," said Sheila Tate, a former press secretary to Nancy Reagan and George Bush, who is now the president of Powell Tate, a Washington public relations firm. The inauguration might matter more to George W. Bush than to most incoming Presidents because it can help him to become better-known to the American public. "More than any President since Jimmy Carter, he is a blank slate," noted Curt Smith, who was a White House speechwriter for Bush's father. An inauguration is the closest thing America has to a coronation--a sacred, almost religious, ritual of state. (Indeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt revived the custom begun by George Washington of worshipping in church on inauguration morning.) The symbolism and the ceremony of Inauguration Day lend the mantle of legitimacy to the person who is chosen to serve as the closest thing this republic has to a king. And who has need of a mantle of legitimacy more than Bush? He won the presidency in a breathtakingly tight election that took weeks of legal and political wrangling to resolve, and he has promised Americans who are skeptical about his experience and depth that he will "earn your respect." The guiding spirit of the inaugural, according to Jeanne Johnson Phillips, the event's executive director, is "to represent all different kinds of Americans." Bush will undoubtedly use his inaugural address Jan. 20 to portray himself--in his favorite self-description--as a uniter, not a divider. Many phrases from past inaugural addresses have made their way into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and have accurately described the spirit of the ensuing Administration. But the predictive symbols of inaugurations go beyond the rhetorical. Some incoming Presidents use their feet. Andrew Jackson, the first President from the West, walked to the Capitol in 1829, with thousands of people following, to show himself as a common man. In 1977, Jimmy Carter walked from the Capitol to the White House and ordered that "Hail to the Chief " not be played, to show--and with some success--that the day of the imperial presidency had passed. Every President since Carter has walked part of the inaugural route, so that if Bush were to ride the whole route, "I think it would be a problem," Sheila Tate said. But it isn't the choreographed bits of symbolism that keep a President-elect's image-makers up at night. Often, an inaugural's most potent symbolism is inadvertent and showcases an aspect of the new regime that its leader would just as soon keep concealed. In 1981, Ronald Reagan meant to dramatize his conservatism by ordering a federal hiring freeze within an hour after he assumed the presidency. But his Inauguration Day received far more publicity for the prevalence of minks and limousines, a display that seemed to symbolize the main beneficiaries of his policies-to-come. Nancy Reagan's elaborately beaded, one-shoulder inaugural gown stood in contrast with Rosalynn Carter's home-sewn, twice-worn creation of four years earlier. Bill Clinton, on Inauguration Day in 1993, divulged more than he might have meant to about his own habits of behavior when he and his wife arrived at the White House for the traditional visit with their predecessors an unmannerly 27 minutes late. This proved to be a true inkling of his presidency: His lack of self-discipline led to a disorganized White House that damaged his performance in his first term and to a humiliating impeachment that stained the presidency in his second. On Clinton's first day in office, the trajectory of his presidency was clear. Inaugural Omens
On a spring day in 1789, the first George W.--George Washington--passed up a carriage and chose to travel on foot from the dock in New York, then the capital, as he arrived for his inauguration. The point: to show that he was not a king. For anyone who can decipher the political tea leaves--and the trick is knowing which are the right tea leaves--the nation's 53 inaugurations have often presaged how an Administration turns out. James Monroe, toward the end of his first inaugural address, mentioned the South American countries that were then struggling for independence from Europe, and thus offered the first glimmer of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. The riot inside the White House among Andrew Jackson's drunken supporters on his first day in office drove him out through a window and set a tone for the Democrat's democratic tenure. Grover Cleveland, a business-minded Democrat, breakfasted at the Willard Hotel on the morning of his second inaugural, in 1893, with 100 businessmen from New York, his home state. Months later, when he found himself presiding over the worst economic depression the nation had yet seen, he nevertheless kept to his gold-standard conservatism. A shrewd President or President-elect can manipulate the symbols of an inauguration to salve some of his political wounds and to get off to a vigorous start. It was vigor--or, as he pronounced it, vigah--that John F. Kennedy meant to project when he forswore an overcoat at noontime on a bitterly cold day in 1961. After winning the election with the narrowest of margins in the popular vote, Kennedy invoked what Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, described as "broad national symbols," in the patriotic, Cold War rhetoric of his acclaimed inaugural address and in his choice of cultural icons such as black contralto Marian Anderson singing the National Anthem and Robert Frost reciting a poem. It worked, in that Kennedy raised his public approval rating past 70 percent, but at a cost. His harsh words upset the Soviets, according to Greenstein, and led to diplomatic setbacks early in his presidency. Clinton set out to portray himself as another, more soulful JFK. After he had worshipped at a predominantly black church in Washington in the morning, Clinton had black author Maya Angelou read a poem at the inaugural ceremony. Jimmy Carter, too, showed himself as a racially conciliatory Southerner; he stationed the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., a fellow Georgian, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where his famous son had given the "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Carter also used his first day in office to bring an end to the socially divisive Vietnam War era by issuing a pardon for draft dodgers. He couldn't have imagined that, precisely four years later, he would give up his office to Ronald Reagan just as American hostages, whose capture in Iran had ruined Carter's presidency, were being released--dramatizing how little influence any President exerts over his own political fate. It is nothing new for Inauguration Day to recall--or foretell--political disaster, as Glenn Kittler wrote in Hail to the Chief! The Inauguration Days of Our Presidents. Because William Henry Harrison felt a need during his 1840 campaign to portray himself as more rugged than he really was, he rode a magnificent white charger to the Capitol on a frigid, wet day and spurned an overcoat, gloves, and a hat as he delivered the longest inaugural address ever; he died of pneumonia within a month. The 1889 inauguration of his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, marked the first overt intrusion of commerce into the event. Each guest at the inaugural ball (held in the Pension Building, the site of a planned Bush inaugural ball) was given a rose that smelled even sweeter than a natural rose, with a tag on the stem that identified the perfume manufacturer. The new President went on to conduct a corrupt Administration. Both of Abraham Lincoln's inaugurations were redolent of the danger that would ultimately take his life. In 1861, as the Union was crumbling, none of the political notables was willing to take the first step onto the Capitol podium, despite the policemen who had mixed in with the crowd, until Sen. Stephen Douglas, D-Ill.-Lincoln's political archrival--led the way. As Lincoln crossed the Capitol Rotunda on the way to his second swearing-in, a young man broke through the ranks of police and nearly reached the wartime President; the authorities held the perpetrator until they were satisfied that he wasn't insane, and then they released the actor named John Wilkes Booth. It was also at Lincoln's second inaugural that his new Vice President, Andrew Johnson, arrived drunk. Johnson's reputation never recovered, and he began a political descent that led to his impeachment as President in 1868. Inauguration Day brought bad omens in the 20th century, too. In 1929, Herbert Hoover wanted the Bible used in the swearing-in to be opened to the Sermon on the Mount, but because of some last-minute confusion over logistics, the pages were turned at random, and his fingers touched a verse from Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (The stock market crashed within eight months, and four years later, on the afternoon before Inauguration Day, a venomous confrontation erupted between the unseated Hoover and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt.) In 1973, demonstrators flung fruit and stones at President Nixon's car during his second inaugural parade, 19 months before he was driven from office because of the Watergate scandal. Even as unintended imagery takes hold, an inaugural's meticulously crafted symbolism may well fall flat. Clinton's call for sacrifice never went beyond words. His predecessor, the first President Bush, went to considerable lengths on his Inauguration Day, in 1989, to show that he was a regular guy. He refused an overcoat, wore a business suit (a contrast to Reagan's cutaway), and walked part of the way to the White House. He invited country singers Loretta Lynn and Randy Travis to perform at his inaugural gala, and he opened the White House to the public--the first such event in 80 years--the day after he assumed office. These symbols, however, turned out to say little about the presidency that followed, which ended after a single term because of Bush's apparent lack of interest in the public's economic travails. What Bush Needs
The 41st President's eldest son is planning a White House open house of his own. He might also want to repeat, even word for word, his father's unheeded plea to end the bickering in Washington. That isn't all that the new President Bush might want to try on his Inauguration Day. He has quite a lot to get done. More than anything, said Greenstein, Bush must show "gravitas and magnanimity." For the latter, he is expected to reach out to bitter Democrats and to say something flattering about the valor of Al Gore, his defeated opponent, who, as the departing Vice President, plans to be seated on the Capitol podium. For a boyish and inexperienced new President, gravitas may be harder to show. A compelling inaugural address, from this tongue-tied scion of an inarticulate family, would help. "To me, he needs to show that he can't wait to get to the job," said Tate, who suggested that he might want to "go to work the first day and sign something," or call a Cabinet meeting, or reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to traffic. Any symbolic venture that Bush might want to try will have to compete with political theater beyond his control. Suppose that the planned protests over the contested election outcome in Florida catch fire, literally or figuratively, or that something unplanned or unforeseen suddenly looks like an augury. After Bush was inaugurated as the new governor of Texas, in 1995, the Houston Chronicle marveled at the unprecedented amount of sequins and minks "assembled at a country-and-western soiree." Given the pitfalls, Bush's most powerful symbolism might prove to be no symbolism at all. For one thing, despite the elder Bush's self-conscious efforts in 1989--or in part because of them--an absence of artifice would jibe with his family's carefully bred instincts for how to behave. "The Bushes don't grandstand," Curt Smith said. Less-is-more may be the easiest course for the 43rd President. But politically, it may also be the wisest course. That is Vic Gold's considered judgment. The former speechwriter and biographer for the elder Bush suggested that the new President should make an effort "not to strain too hard" to embody a political image, because his appeal rests on his "naturalness, the genuineness" of how he comes across. Any obvious effort at public relations, Gold said, might look transparent. "I'm PR'd out," he sighed, and he didn't think he was alone: "I really think that the public is gimmicked out." Besides, no matter how the inauguration turns out, a presidency can recover--or collapse. For Rutherford B. Hayes, a sagging economy revived and his conciliatory attitude prevailed. By the end of his term, he was considered a successful president, though not enough so to prompt him to rethink his promise to forgo a second term.
By Burt Solomon
January 19, 2001