A great American ritual

Tomorrow is Inauguration Day, and I don’t think there’s better proof that our democracy works than this quadrennial ritual — especially when the presidency changes hands to a different party.

We’ve had an election and all sides have accepted the result (with the possible exception of some conservative bloggers and talk radio hosts). The Bush Administration isn’t barricading itself inside the White House and as far as I know, the Obama Administration has no plans to send thugs to hang Republicans from lampposts. (Again, you may get a different story from listening to talk radio.)

What we will experience tomorrow is the peaceful transfer of power, something we take for granted but that is far from a given even in some countries which say they’re democracies — see Zimbabwe, for example.

I’ll be watching, probably on streaming video from CNN.com or some other on-line source, a sign of the technological times. This is the first YouTube inauguration, after all.

Times were simpler in January 1993 when Jayne and I attended the only Inauguration we’ve seen in person. We moved during the summer of 1992 from Pensacola, Fla., where we worked for a newspaper in the Gannett Co. to Pittsburgh, to take jobs at a new suburban daily newspaper the company was starting.

I’ve always loved it that I married a woman who has as big a sense of history as I do. And, just talking one night about a possible road trip, we decided that being a four-hour drive from Our Nation’s Capital meant that we should go to the Inauguration, whether it was for a second term by then-President George H.W. Bush, or the first for the challenger, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

We knew we could get an inexpensive place to stay through our connection with Gannett. (http://www.gannett.com) The company leased some condo units in D.C. near its corporate headquarters and the offices of USA Today, Gannett’s most famous media outlet.

The next challenge was to get tickets, which we started on after Election Day. I’m a native South Carolinian and we decided to contact the office of Sen. Strom Thurmond. (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=t000254) We figured — correctly — that a Republican senator from a very Republican state would have plenty of tickets available to see the first presidential inauguration of a Democrat in 16 years. As we understand it, you’re supposed to work with the senators or congressmen from the state where you reside in order to obtain tickets, but we fudged the facts just a little and gave our address as my parents’ house in Laurens County. They were advised to play along if anyone called to check.

Skip to Jan. 20, 1993. Here’s what we remember about that day. We had to pick our tickets up in person between 8 and 9 a.m., so we took the Metro into the city and walked to Sen. Thurmond’s office on Capitol Hill. The Senator, who had just turned 90, turned the simple picking up of tickets into a Southern-style social occasion, greeting each person individually as his staff circulated with refreshments.

And he displayed the memory for names and faces that made him legendary in South Carolina — I think his ability to relate to and provide service for constituents kept getting him re-elected long after his views on issues ceased to be relevant. He remembered meeting Jayne at some political event she was covering when she was a rookie reporter for the Laurens County Advertiser, more than eight years earlier. (On the other hand, I think I may be the only name/face that the Senator ever forgot. He didn’t mention having shaken my hand in the press box at the Clemson-South Carolina football game in 1978.)

We then headed for the Capitol grounds to stake out a place to stand. And that’s what we did for nearly three hours before the start of the ceremony. The weather was cold and miserable — par for the course in Washington in January.
The picture above shows our view of the action. Can you see the anticipation and the excitement on the faces of Bill Clinton and Al Gore as they prepare to take the oath of office? We could, because a guy in front of us had a battery-powered TV.

I don’t remember much about Clinton’s Inaugural address. And that’s not terribly surprising – although there are plenty of examples of good ones, just as many have been unremarkable. (http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20090119/sc_livescience/theworstinauguraladdressesever)

The poet Maya Angelou read her original poem for the occasion, “On the Pulse of Morning.” (http://poetry.eserver.org/angelou.html) And after it was all over, everyone headed for Pennsylvania Avenue and the parade. We had thought before the trip about trying to get into an inaugural ball. But, instead of attending an event where we might or might not see the new First Couple for a few seconds, we opted for going to see political satirist Mark Russell at Ford’s Theater.

Mostly, it was exciting just being there as history was being made. A number of our students from Wingate will be among the literally hundreds of thousands of people in Washington tomorrow for the inauguration of Barack Obama. They’ll hear an inaugural address that’s widely anticipated and is already being compared to those of John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt.

That, of course, remains to be seen, but I hope the students will listen with the same appreciation of being a part of history, and of being an American, that our experience gave us.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
This entry was posted in Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, inauguration, Strom Thurmond. Bookmark the permalink.

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