After the last presidential inauguration, I shared a few thoughts regarding things I would never do again. I would like to update my outlook on such matters.
As a young man, I went possum hunting. Once! Whenever, I was asked to thereafter, my reply was repeatedly, “No thanks, I've been.” The same answer applies whenever I am asked if I would like to go to another presidential inauguration. Been there. Done that. Once was enough for both possum hunting and inaugurations.
Because I was active in the presidential campaign for Ronald Reagan, I received a special invitation to his first inauguration in 1981. I didn't want to miss the opportunity, so, my wife and I excitedly made plans to attend the new president's swearing in.
I have three distinct memories of the occasion: Cold, hungry and crowded.
A whole host of folks attended Mr. Obama's inauguration (some of them twice!) and I will be interested in hearing of their experiences. First of all, I hope they didn't expect to see the Obama family up-close. If they got within a half-mile of them, they can consider themselves among the privileged few. I hope they anticipated tremendous crowds and were prepared to walk and stand for hours — and hours.
Even with VIP credentials, my wife and I got no closer than a hundred yards of President Reagan's swearing-in ceremonies on the Capitol grounds. We had passes inside the Capitol grounds but were still a long way away from the two presidents and first ladies on the balcony. That was still better than the throngs lined up for a mile along the mall.
Although it was very cold (The Potomac was frozen over), it was a thrilling moment for us for two reasons: We witnessed the passing of the mantle to the world's greatest office. Furthermore, we were equally thrilled because almost simultaneously with the swearing in, it was announced that the hostages who had been held for 444 days by the Iranians had been released. We were happy for them and their families but we were also glad that our middle son, who had spent the past five months engaged in naval intelligence in the Persian Gulf area, could now come home as well. He later reported, “Dad, I knew the hostages were freed even before the president.”
Following the swearing in, the hordes crept from the Capitol grounds only to merge with the throngs on the mall. It was the first time in my life that I feared someone would be trampled to death. We were shoulder to shoulder and no one was moving more than a couple of inches at a time. As the momentum picked up, we were all in danger of falling and perishing as individual pods of people pushed in opposing directions. It was nothing short of terrifying.
There were less than 400,000 folks at President Reagan's inauguration. Millions attended the first Obama inauguration and crowd estimates for the second was estimated to be half or less than Obama's first.
Once we found our way onto the streets of Washington, it was time for a bite to eat. We had skipped breakfast because of the crowd in the hotel dining room. All the restaurants had long lines or signs in the window, “Out of Food.” We finally found a sundry shop with a few cheese crackers still on the shelf.
But, we were undaunted because that night would be the occasion of the Inaugural Ball! We had not previously known that there were NINE different balls. The one we were assigned was in the Pension Building — an august structure from the 1800s. We waited for over an hour to get in because we had to go through a security check. It was sleeting as we waited on the outside. Inside, we were again confronted with wall-to-wall people. Two very small people were standing about waist-high at my side. I glanced down to see diminutive Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker sharing our space. Alexander Haig, Secretary of State, was the host for this particular ball. The president and the first lady made brief appearances at all nine locations. When they arrived, it offered our only opportunity to be close to the pair. We squirmed our way to within 15 or 20 feet of the First Couple. They smiled for a few moments; waved to the crowd and then left for another ball. It was a festive occasion and we saw a lot of world-famous people.
In fact, Henry Kissinger and his party were seated on the balcony at their private table. Our feet were getting tired from standing and when I saw him and his party depart for the evening, I dragged my wife up the steps toward the empty table. Secret Service members stood between us and the table. I said, “Gosh, Henry will be disappointed that we are so tardy.” And sat down. They did not question us and we spent the rest of the evening in the comfort of Henry Kissinger's table looking down on the throng of celebrants while we were attended to by the Secret Service.
The night before was a big pre-inaugural celebration over at the coliseum in Maryland where Frank Sinatra was the master of ceremonies. We were in the nose-bleed section but could see the President-elect and other dignitaries. We were going to be late for the festivities because of the crowds waiting for busses and cabs. I opened the door of a limo that had stopped for a traffic signal and asked if my wife and I could ride with them to the festivities. We never knew who they were but the strangers were most gracious and we rode in style with them to the front gate of the arena.
My wife had brought a new dress to wear earlier that morning to “Tea with the First Lady” held in the Lincoln Center. She envisioned an intimate time with Mrs. Reagan. Upon entering the structure, she discovered that this “intimate” moment was to be shared by over 5,000 other ladies. My wife could have been wearing pajamas and no one would have noticed.
But, we did get to meet Vice-president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, the evening before as we marched past them in one of the big galleries along the mall. As we approached, Secret Service members kept us a safe distance from the couple as assistants handed out mementoes of the occasion.
The entire adventure was a lot of fun. In case you are thinking all of this came as a courtesy to those of us who had worked in the President's campaign, think again! The tickets to all of the events were substantially priced because that's how the GOP paid for the festivities.
I'm glad we were able to attend. But, never again! And to all the folks who went this year, I can only say I hope you had a ball! Now that you are back home, perhaps, we can go possum hunting sometime.
John Brock, a retired college professor and newspaper editor/publisher, lives in the S.C. Lowcountry and can be reached by mail at this newspaper or via Email: email@example.com. His website is: www.SouthernObserver.com.
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