THE NEW YORKER,
February 11, 1985
Our Special Inaugural Correspondent, back from several days of pomp and circumstance in the nation's capital, and now thoroughly thawed, has filed the following dispatch:
Must have heard, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at least forty-seven times. Deeply love the piece, and always get a lump in my throat (visions of Honest Abe), but wish it were played with somewhat more discretion. Arrived on Friday (two days before private swearing-in at the White House, three days before official swearing-in at the Capitol) and settled into hotel room overlooking White House and Lafayette Park. Stunning view of
the grand old house, gleaming brightly in snowy grounds, with Washington Monument behind. Lafayette Park another matter: chockablock with huge motorized vans containing television equipment and temporary offices for broadcasting people; a truck marked "PEPSI"; a truck marked "Gourmet Productions- The Rolling Feast"; and signs reading, "Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb", "Love is the Way to Win", and "WANTED: WISDOM AND HONESTY".
Brief walk through eerie quiet streets. Gridlock worse than in New York. Impossible for anything to move in any direction. Heimlich Maneuver obviously required. Stood for a moment at dusk outside Russian Embassy an watched stolid-looking man in dark
suit sticking head out of first one Embassy window and then another, methodically closing metal shutters on windows. Embassy a huge mansion, but great metal gate in front gives one the feeling it's an impenetrable fortress. Strange sensation, heightened by fact that Polish Solidarity flag flies directly across from Embassy, in front of headquarters of International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Technical, Salaried and Machine Workers, A.F.L.C.I.O.
Getting dark now , and much colder, and time to head for Ellipse and the first official Inauguration function--a Prelude Pageant set in the packed snow of icy park behind White House. Rigid security. Had to Pass through airport-type detectors; nearby woman's handbag subjected to intense scrutiny--every item removed and examined. Bitter, biting winds a hardy band of spectators faced a giant stage topped by an immense red-white
and-blue eagle that bore an unkind resemblance to a Thanksgiving turkey. Many police with dogs on leashes. Sudden stir behind stage as long, dark motor cavalcade, punctuated by red motorcycle lights, swept up, having silently wheeled around from White House. Vice-President and Mrs. Bush appeared, waved briefly, and entered glass booth to one side of stage. A moment later, President and Mrs. Reagan walked out onto stage, he bundled up in long, dark greatcoat with white scarf, she in vivid-red coat. He has a distinctive walk--a rolling lope with great vigor-and an easy wave of the hand. He entered glass booth, and I hope was warm. I was cold, but I'm not President. Reagan and company listened to pageant narration delivered by Fess Parker [Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett of television), who left few notes in American history untouched, with heavy emphasis on Valley Forge, Bull Run, Gettysburg, settling of the West ("Trappers and traders, much like the films we used to make, Mr. President"). Cliches danced in the bone-chilling night: "Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon" (this was Civil War), the country was looking for a man in shining armor" (this was the Depression, and the man, who has become an anomalous folk hero to the incumbent, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Songs and dancing by courageous young performers jumping up and down in red-white-and-blue costumes. Then fireworks, an, immense
display of sound and light, completely illuminating capital's sky, and the President and his party, silently, almost mysteriously, were gone. Brown clouds of acrid smoke settled over frozen Ellipse.
Monday, day of official outdoor swearing-in. Early morning temperature four degrees below zero,Fahrenheit. All outdoor tickets declared invalid. Disappointing. Went outside hotel to watch President Reagan Arrive for prayer service at St.John's Church, across from Lafayette Park. Most elaborate security. Hand-held metal detector pressed against my coat and under my arms as I stood and watched Presidential party arrive: motorcycles, police cars, long black limousines, then limousine with Presidential seal, then open Secret Service car, then more motorcycles and police, and an ambulance. The President, hatless, strode into church. "I'm glad he's praying," said man next to me. Sudden word from friend McGhee that a ticket available for me in the Rotunda. Wild taxi ride to Capitol. Was stopped by police and Secret Service near foot of Capitol Hill, but tightly clutched tickets previously issued got me inside building, where I was escorted by kindly McGhee to Rotunda. Truly a sight. Rotunda is Enormous nearly a hundred feet across, more than a hundred and eighty feet high--with sandstone walls, sandstone floor, classic frieze circling entire room high up and, higher still, at tip-top, an allegorical painting depicting General Washington (dim in the distance) seated between Liberty and Victory and in close proximity to Arts, Sciences, Commerce, and Agriculture.
Sun streamed in through windows in huge dome. Floor of Rotunda solidly packed with members of Congress, diplomats, Supreme Court, Marine Band (blazing-red jackets), Cabinet members. A small platform had been erected near center of Rotunda, with a lectern for use of the President. At very center of Rotunda, over a white marble disc in the floor, twenty-six Americans have lain in state, including Abraham Lincoln, the Unknown Soldier, John F. Kennedy, and Hubert H. Humphrey. Didn't have much chance to think about past, although past was everywhere. Hand of marine Band's leader was poised in midair,awaiting cue. Suddenly, his hand moved, and "Hail to the Chief" boomed through the hall. The acoustics were perfect, the moment solemn. The President entered with his usual brisk walk. Dressed in a dark-blue suit. the inevitable white handkerchief in his jacket pocket. The oath of office was quietly administered by a dark-robed and intensely white-maned Chief Justice Burger. The President,without a teleprompter, and in subdued, almost intimate tones, began his address. Behind him were his family and Cabinet, before him the representatives of the people. Facing him were huge murals of Washington resigning his commission, Cornwallis surrendering at Yorktown, The President seemed deeply affected by
the unexpected indoor surroundings. He spoke conversational!y, unpretentiously. He talked of "the American sound--hopeful, bighearted,idealistic, daring, decent, and fair." Prayers, "Hail to the Chief," and the President was gone--to lunch,and four more years. I, too, said a small prayer--for daring, for decency,