Archived: Putting the Inauguration Into Perspective


It was a day to relish, rejoice in and remember.

I’ve been to more than a few presidential inaugurations in my time but none like the one we witnessed last week. It seemed more the celebration of a national holiday than a changing of the guard.

All day, everywhere, you saw people walking around with silly grins on their faces, simply surfing the wave of shared exuberance. And not just in Washington; it was truly a national celebration. During the ceremony itself groups of people throughout the country stood in front of television sets and wept tears of joy. It was remarkable and immensely satisfying.
(The stock market fell 4 percent, of course, but it does that every other day. You can’t have everything.)

I suppose the closest any recent inauguration came to matching the celebratory atmosphere of last week was Ronald Reagan’s first. Rather than an explosion of populist glee, however, that was a festival of the well-heeled and well-connected.

From better neighborhoods across the nation they came, wearing tuxedos, dripping in mink, to attend fat-cat parties hosted by lobbyists. Limousines from five states around were sucked into Washington by the demand of the privileged for privileged transportation. It was the ruling class reclaiming the throne and they were delirious in their joy and extravagant in their expression of it.

Obama’s installation wasn’t anything like that. It was more of a BYOB affair, everybody welcome. People crammed the subway and walked miles to get to the National Mall, where they stood for hours.

People have compared it to the inaugural of Franklin D. Roosevelt and I suppose there are similarities, but I was struck by its echo of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. He, like Obama, was a young, bright, elegant politician of great charm who gave promise of the dawn of a new day. He too ignited hope.

For sheer drama, however, nothing can match Richard Nixon’s second inaugural. He had been elected overwhelmingly but he was still a villain to many. When his presidential limousine cruised down Pennsylvania Avenue in the parade, crowds of angry protestors lined the sidewalks and chanted “Jail to the Thief.”

Mr. Nixon responded by standing up through the open roof of the car, stabbing his arms into the air in a double-victory gesture and smiling malevolently. The mutual hostility virtually crackled. It was marvelous.

They don’t make presidents like Dick Nixon anymore. Vice presidents, yes, but not presidents.

Not everybody buys all of the good feeling surrounding President Obama, of course. I got a note from a North Carolina man that had the flavor of “I told you so” about it. He said:

“It seems to me that recently many of Obama’s supporters are becoming very pessimistic. Before the election they were saying that he was going to solve many of our problems. Now that he has been elected they, like you, are saying he might not be successful. What has changed…to make so many of his supporters become so negative about his future?”

Is that snarky or what? The man seems to be gleefully anticipating failure for our president. Sad.

In any case, I doubt that President Obama’s people have deserted him. On the contrary, every day they become more convinced that they did indeed choose the right man for the job.

But what a job! You’d have to be a moron not to fear that he might fail. And if they were morons they’d be writing snarky letters to columnists instead of lending their support to our president.

In one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” moments, Vice President Dick Cheney, the very symbol of right-wing Republicanism, left office in a wheelchair (bad back) even as his ideology lay broken at the side of the road (bad ideology). So the man who years before had voted against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday was wheeled out of office as a black man took command.

That is an irony to be savored.

Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent who, by his own account, is right more than he’s wrong. Email:

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