Poetic License and the Art of the Presidential Inaugural

I knew early on that it was going to be an Inaugural ceremony soaked in selfless devotion when, on the floor of the rapidly filling House chamber, a disgruntled congressman was causing early-morning havoc by objecting to the old-bull seniority process by which members of Congress were to be escorted to their VIP seats on the Inaugural platform.

Wanting the spirit of the day to be defined by those venerable qualities of self-sacrifice and altruism that have made this nation great, the resolute patriot pressed his case by raising a point of order and asking if it wouldn’t be more fair and better for all concerned if members couldn’t instead line up alphabetically by last name. Point of order rejected by the visionless, invisible powers of reticence and small thinking, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Aloha) took one for the team, fell in line and lived to fight another day. The wheels of justice sometimes move slowly.

Later, out on the Inaugural platform and apparently having put the priority-seating outrage behind them, the resilient members of Congress consoled themselves by schmoozing and styling with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and other Hollywooders who apparently did not have to be elected before Sputnik was launched to get a primo seat on which to rest their primo derrieres.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who commandeered a nice bit of real estate that forced every living soul to encounter him upon arriving on the platform, sported some cool-looking Bono-like shades, while a Republican colleague, similarly positioned, competed with him by wearing a funky-looking Crocodile Dundee hat.

Meanwhile, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) preferred the motif of the American West, sporting oversized cowboy hats, no doubt hand-stitched by artisans from their home states, or at least by dollar-a-day Chinese workers who are equally skilled at stitching home-state artisanal labels. I didn’t see any six-shooters on their sides, but I cannot vouch for hatless Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who stood nearby with a big “Just-let-’em-make-the-first-move” smile on his face …

Nearby, hatless Sen. Bernie Sander’s (D-(I think)-Vt.) wispy white hair was flowing in so many directions it could have easily doubled for windsock duty in case a National Park Service medical chopper had to make an emergency landing. Not far from Sanders was former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), whose hair has not moved an iota since the Lyndon Johnson administration …

Meanwhile, down the hill on Pennsylvania Avenue, excitement was starting to build as President-elect Barack Obama and outgoing President George Bush made the traditional slow drive together up to the Capitol.

I am not sure the Constitution requires that it be a slow drive, but not only do we have a new president, we apparently also have a brand-new, state-of-the-art, armored presidential limousine whose weight is roughly equivalent to that of the state of Connecticut.

Fair enough — we certainly want our presidents to be safe — but the limo gets such lousy gas mileage it had to refuel six times between the White House and the Capitol.

Also, apparently a brand-new Inaugural tradition was started this year by having the presidential limo escorted to the Capitol by approximately 6,000 of those cute little sidecar motorcycles. I didn’t spot any of those purple Shriner hats or anybody dressed up in clown outfits, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had.

I shouldn’t make fun of the traditional “two-president” car ride. It’s a nice tradition, and given the fact that Barack Obama would probably like to change or undo just about 100 percent of what George Bush did, or didn’t do, the uncomfortable twofer car ride probably ensured that Obama got to the ceremony on time. And that hasn’t always been the case.

Transportation issues almost forced George Washington to miss his own swearing-in ceremony in 1789. Scheduled for April 30 at Federal Hall in New York City, the day started off well enough. Impressive 13-gun salute. Church bells ringing throughout the city. The town was absolutely buzzing with excitement and poised with anticipation of Washington’s arrival to be sworn in as our first president. The only problem: Someone forgot to send the horse-drawn coach to fetch and transport him to the ceremony.

Eventually located, Washington was picked up in a four-horse coach and rode alone to Federal Hall. A little difficult arranging a cordial ride-along with a soon-to-be-former president when you’re the first one to make the trip.

Lot’s of other firsts with Washington’s 1789 Inaugural: “So help me God.” Kissing the Bible. The post-swearing-in speech itself was an invention of Washington’s. Think of it. If Washington had indigestion during his first Inaugural, he could just as easily have taken the oath and then proceeded to go in and take a nap. “Nothing to fear but fear itself” might have had to wait for a postcard to some kid wanting FDR’s autograph if Washington hadn’t started the tradition. No word on whether the chief justice screwed up Washington’s oath — or if he had to endure a godawful poem that might as well have been a tribute to Port-a-Pottys.


You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.