Memories of inaugurations past
By Barbara A. Perry,
Barbara A. Perry is a senior fellow in the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Its interviews are available online.
At age 21, a presidential inauguration was already on my bucket list, so I traveled from Louisville to Washington for Jimmy Carter’s 1977 swearing-in. The Potomac froze that year, but I recall President Carter’s warm smile as he strode down Pennsylvania Avenue. From the archives of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, here are other inaugural memories of what one aide to George H.W. Bush called the “biggest day” of any commander in chief’s life.
— Barbara A. Perry
Senior fellow, University of Virginia’s Miller Center
Legislative horse-trading on Inauguration Day
I had several meetings with the Georgia [congressional] delegation, either private breakfasts at the White House or even before I went to the inauguration. We had a tacit understanding that if I really needed them on an issue of importance that I would let them know directly and they would make every effort to support me, even though it was damaging for them at home. But if I didn’t really need them, they would vote in accordance with what they thought was best for them and their own constituents.
— President Jimmy Carter on his 1977 inauguration
Picking an office at the White House
I remember [John F. Kennedy aide] Larry O’Brien telling me when I asked him about it. He said it was the damnedest thing: All of them ran from the inaugural platform to the White House. . . . Guys were moving desks because nobody made any assignments. He saw that all the offices on the ground were going to be taken, so he ran up the steps to sort of an attic, where boxes were stored. . . . He said it worked out great. In fact, he advised me not to get on the first floor. I asked why. He said: “Well, you have tourists and people coming in, plus you can’t have a beer or take your shoes off down there. You guys will get back from the Hill late at night, and you will want to take your tie off and sit around and talk, and it’s hard to do that downstairs. You’ll always get interrupted.” And he was right.
— Frank Moore, Carter’s congressional liaison
First impressions of the Oval Office
Walking into that office with [Reagan] — he sat down behind the desk . . . and before he opened that drawer that had Carter’s note in it, he looked over at me. He had both his hands on the desk, and he looked at me and said, “Have you got goose bumps?”
— Michael Deaver, deputy chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, on the 1981 inauguration
I don’t think I went to bed from sometime on Sunday morning until Tuesday after the day of the inauguration. After [President Carter] had gone with the Reagans up to the Hill and the actual inauguration ceremony had begun, I was still sitting on that telephone waiting for the final word on when the [American] hostages’ plane had actually taken off from Tehran. . . . About 1:30, finally, with something under each arm and a couple of other people helping me carry things out as I walked out of that West Wing basement, something caught my eye. Instead of the photographs that I was accustomed to looking at — [Carter] with the pope, meeting with Brezhnev in Vienna, et cetera — there were photographs of Ronald Reagan and his dog. By 1:30 on January 20, the transition had happened, the new photos were up, everything was ready for the new president to return to his White House.
— Lloyd Cutler , White House counsel to Carter, on the 1981 inauguration. Iran’s hostages were released shortly after Reagan’s inaugural speech.
Too cold for a parade
No one used our bleachers. No one used our reviewing stand. All that stuff we built went unused. We were sitting in a trailer in Lafayette Park, which was our office, just sitting there, nobody using any of our stuff. Then we start tearing it down. Disappointing.
— Timothy J. McBride, personal aide to Vice President George H.W. Bush, on Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. The temperature was 7 degrees at noon.
Upstaging the outgoing president
Even on the day that is the biggest day of his entire life, one might argue, [Bush is] worrying about, “I can’t look more robust than Ronald Reagan, and I need my coat.” I said: “I don’t have your coat. This is one event that is going to be on time. When Congress says it’s time, the Constitution says you’re going to be sworn in. I can’t get your coat and be back up here on time, so try mine.” . . . We’re 44-longs. . . . It was pretty nice weather, and he didn’t want his coat. But then when he saw that President Reagan was bundled up . . . it was pretty nice by Washington standards, but Nancy Reagan was concerned for President Reagan, and even on that day, [Bush is] worried about outshining President Reagan.
— McBrideon Bush’s 1989 inauguration
A presidential Post-it
Incoming President Bush had said: “I want this to be as much about Ronald Reagan as it is about me. So let’s make sure that it’s his day, too.” And they exchanged notes. President Reagan left a note to him, one of those little Post-its that said, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”
— Frederick J. Ryan Jr., assistant to Reagan, on Bush’s inauguration
Hail to the chief, from the chief
After the ceremony, the Bushes and the Reagans walked to the east side of the Capitol. . . . President Bush and Mrs. Bush stayed at the top [of the steps]. President Reagan and Mrs. Reagan walked over to the helicopter. The rest of us were already onboard. Then the president walked up to the top [of the helicopter’s steps]. The new president gave a salute. They saluted each other. . . . The helicopter took off and flew over the White House. You could see the moving van in back, which told the story. We went over the monuments and the Pentagon and then circled back over the Capitol one more time and out to Andrews Air Force Base. The military had a farewell for him. He didn’t want that to be a high-profile event because he didn’t want it to interfere with the attention back in Washington where the inaugural parade was going on. And he didn’t want television to have this split screen showing Ronald Reagan having this high-profile event at Andrews Air Force Base and the inaugural parade.
— Ryan on Bush’s inauguration
Don’t dance, don’t tell
Don’t dance, don’t tell
I told [President Bill Clinton]: “Mr. President, I was at your inaugural ball last night. I saw two guys in tuxedos dancing with each other. That is not going to work in Fort Bliss or in the Naval Club and places like that.” He said, “They were?” I mean he didn’t have the concept that that was the way it was going to be and that was going to be very hard for the military culture at that time to deal with. I think it’s kind of ho-hum now, properly so. But you couldn’t do it then.
— Adm. David Jeremiah, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the 1993 inauguration
One finger on the button
On Inauguration Day, General [Brent] Scowcroft and I were to go over to Blair House . . . to meet with President-elect Clinton to tell him exactly what was going to happen at 12 noon with the codes. He was going to be taken into a room in the Capitol after the inauguration and told what responsibility he now has for the nuclear codes, and how that would all work, and the role of the military aide. We briefed him on those programs, General Scowcroft from the national security perspective, I from the perspective of managing the continuity of government programs and the military aides. That was a really fascinating visit on that morning. I was really impressed with Mr. Clinton. The first words out of his mouth were: “Brent, thank you for your service to the country. It’s amazing. Thank you for coming over here.”
— McBride on Clinton’s inauguration