America's Answer to Royalty: A Coronation Without a Crown
By Paul Hendrickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E17
Say the words "presidential inaugural pageantry" and many recall John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline. It was fine to go around town these past several weeks, as Washington got ready for a morality play, and hear the high dental whine of electric saws, the clean steady pound of nails driving into wood. Christmas was over, the January blahs were upon the rest of the country, but here, in a maligned city that isn't a state but somehow is far more than a city, there was a kind of lingering Christmassy air.
Photo by AP.
It felt like presents being wrapped in another room. Scaffolding and viewing platforms and grandstands were rising along stretches of wide beautiful avenues. On the West Lawn of the Capitol, and out front of the semi-barricaded White House, figures in hard hats, their belts holstered with tools, went about cutting and sizing and carrying and swearing at their planks. They looked almost Lilliputian.
There was an air of expectancy, such a feeling of productivity and industry. Clocks were ticking toward -- why, Jan. 20, of course. Washington was converting to a giant set, and even those of us who possessed tickets to nothing for the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton could still feel caught up in the spirit of scurry, could feel like actors with bit roles.
Just being around was somehow being a part.
"In some countries, such a transfer of power would have cost streams of blood, and shaken the government to its very foundations," wrote a reporter for a publication called the National Intelligencer in 1850, who'd come to town when Millard Fillmore succeeded to the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor.
It's true that the man from Hope could raise one hand Monday at noon and rest his other on the Bible and recite the 35-word oath of office -- do no more than simply this -- and we'd still have a new (rather renewed) chief executive. Psychologically, we seem to need far more. There's a name for this.
It's called pageantry.
It's expensive, it's gaudy, it's very necessary. What it seems uniquely to provide us is a sense of our continuity as a people.
"The peaceful changeover of power -- I think we do it with these inaugural pageants," says a scholar at American University named Naima Prevots, who has written a book called "American Pageantry." She has studied pageantry of every kind that existed in cities and small towns at the early part of the 20th century -- there was even something then called the APA: American Pageant Association. In Prevots's view, a presidential inaugural pageant -- probably the American pageant -- is very much about our own power and glory. We're the ones being played to.
But perhaps above all, it's about continuity. "It's our Queen Elizabeth business," says Prevots. "We don't have kings, but we are creating that sense that America goes on."
Like all inaugural pageants, this one, with its parade and balls and tacky souvenirs, is satisfying in each of us an atavistic love of kingliness. We get such love, of course, from our English forebears. We don't want royalty over here. We're Americans. This isn't a coronation. We're not about to invest Bill Clinton with an orb, or scepter, or spur. Damn if we'll raise him upon a shield or garb him in crushed velvet. And yet something there is, maybe especially in a democratic people possessed of Anglo-Saxon traditions, that loves the idea of a coronation -- no matter that we have an extremely uneasy time with the thought. This back-and-forthness about things regal is one of the particular tensions of being American.
You see, it's as though we want all the trappings of a coronation, but not the coronation itself. Which is to say we wish it on our own terms, and what could be more American than that?
Think of it this way, then: America must indulge every four years in this splendid dross, this gorgeous wastefulness, as a way of affirming a national sense of identity. The message of these past several days, the message Monday at noon, the message Monday afternoon at the parade, is: We are worthy. The ideal of democracy has worked again.
You say the words "presidential inaugural pageantry," and Americans of a couple generations will doubtless find in their imagination JFK's silky top hat as he rides from the White House with Ike in a bubble-top to be sworn in. Will spy Jackie's peau d'ange gown with its silver embroidery as she steps slender and queenlike into another glittering room. Will spy Robert Frost's trembling hands at the inaugural podium as he tries to hold down a page of verse in the wind-whip and terrible glare of that freezing noonday in 1961.
The aged Vermonter was stumbling over a specially composed poetic preface to one of his poems. He looked so vulnerable. The world fidgeted and cleared its throat and looked down. It wasn't until LBJ, the soon-to-be-installed vice president, leaned over and offered his top hat to shade the sheet that the lovable old cur recovered and began reciting from memory "The Gift Outright," which began, as schoolboys know: "The land was ours before we were the land's."
A little later, the preternaturally handsome young Bostonian, first president born in the 20th century, who was succeeding the baldish military hero who'd been born in the 19th, took off his overcoat and stood there in his cutaway in the 22-degree chill and bitter wind, while his jabbing fist and puffs of steamy white breath punctuated his oratory. It was as if the weather itself had been scripted to portray an administration's vigor. No, vigah.
Maybe Jimmy Carter never really understood such theater. What the world seems chiefly to remember about his inauguration was his walk from Capitol Hill down Constitution and Pennsylvania to the White House. Such an iconographic, populist moment, emblematic of the simple peanut producer from Plains come to take over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. A indelible moment, yes, but maybe the precise wrong symbology.
"He's walking, he's walking, Jimmy is walking!" the citizenry screamed along the route, as husband, wife, daughter, sons and a grandson -- the family Carter -- strolled in the frigid Yankee air of Jan. 20, 1977. There was almost something religious about it.
In the long view of history, maybe Jimmy Carter went too far down toward the people, wasn't kingly enough. You could say his largely ineffectual presidency was plagued from that walk onward.
Ronald Reagan: Whatever else you wish to say about him, he knew about the American covert desire for royalty, for coronation. You could say he spent his whole presidency presiding, that's about all.
FDR, a blue blood who could touch the common man, is harder to call. He certainly knew about our secret desires for kingliness. The presidential gala for his third term was held on Jan. 19, 1941. The horizon was dark with war, though America itself wouldn't be at war for another 11 months. "Inaugurals take their drama from the temper of the times," the program gravely said. (Mickey Rooney doing impersonations and Nelson Eddy doing arias were on the bill.) But reading the accounts now -- not of the gala only but of the entire inauguration -- one senses most of all the pageantry that went on, despite Hitler. It was celebration in the face of fear.
Bigness. Gaudiness. Splendid dross. In a sense, these are definitions of America.
At our coronations, in lieu of horses and gilded carriages and guards with plumes on their helmets, we bring out the pubescent baton twirlers from Wyoming shivering in their spangled tights behind the garish floats from Iowa and scores of other places in between.
There must be something of the spectacular for true pageantry to work. A pageant is not for small stages or minds, whether it's the Tournament of Roses festival every New Year's Day in Pasadena or a nightly summertime Bible reenactment featuring a cast of hundreds under a ripe Carolina moon. Quotients of faint ridiculousness seem to help. Above all, there has to be a certain symbiosis. Which is to say the pageant makers and the attendees must feel themselves swept up and carried off into something glorious and almost indecipherable at the moment it's happening.
In 17th-century England, the lord mayor of London (the city got a new one every year) would process through the streets, acting out pageants with the people. These were elaborately costumed affairs, with names like the Triumph of Truth, the Triumph of Integrity, the Triumph of Health and Prosperity. They were carefully scripted. There was always an allegorical theme. According to a medieval scholar named David Bergeron, "the commoner was conferring by his presence a kind of blessing on the lord."
Such an absurd waste. But necessary somehow to affirm how strong and good merry old England was. And every year, the people bought in.
Bill Clinton gets to be our lord mayor, but we get to ratify the wisdom of our choice with this supposedly "scaled-down" and "cut-back" $30 million celebration.
The meaning of it all is embedded in the fireworks rising from neighborhoods. It's in the presence of the "great thinkers" camped in heated tents on the Mall. It's in the singing of Jesse Jackson's daughter Santita, and in the invocations of Billy Graham, and in the hymns of the choir of the Immanuel Baptist Church up from Little Rock. It's in the gala at USAir Arena, in the record-breaking number of inaugural balls -- 14! -- that will sashay into the late hours.
Somehow, out of all this extravagance the dollars that could be far better put to feeding the nation's hungry or seeking a cure for AIDS -- comes a symbolic understanding of power.
It was one level of understanding last November when we went into a voting booth and yanked a collective lever. It wasn't enough.
Bigness. When the ample-bellied and handlebar-mustachioed William Howard Taft got crowned by the people in 1909, hotel rooms at the New Willard were going for $5, unheard-of sum. The New Willard warned that five bucks would gain a lodger "nothing but a bed, possibly in the same room with several guests." Didn't matter, the rooms were all taken. Over at the White House, the pageant makers had printed a program of fireworks. The second planned sunburst of that March evening (inaugurations hadn't yet been moved to January) would feature "Illuminations with 250 prismatic fires, changing color 5 times." Following would be the "Ascent of 21 magnesium balloons, lighting the entire neighborhood," to be outdone only by "Salvos of 25 mammoth 30-inch repeating bombs, with rapid and repeated changes in midair."
Oh, the grandeur. Alas, nature had another idea. The weather descended in gales. "Capital Cut Off From World by Snow and Wind" was the next day's headline. The fireworks got "materially altered and shortened," according to news accounts, though the people, refusing to be deprived of their own history, still turned out.
Perhaps the reason people like pageantry so much is that it provides a sense of otherness, immortality even. One could be a little high-toned and say that imagination, which mimes God, is the thing that makes us blessed.
When I think of the word "pageant," the images that come most powerfully to my mind are not of bulls running at Pamplona, or of stunning women going down runways in Atlantic City in politically incorrect but knockout bathing suits, or of the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, or even of a presidential inauguration. No, my most powerfully and sacredly held image of pageantry is of the Christmas show at my two sons' elementary school.
I believe I've sat through about nine of these productions, which are ingenious and stirring every time, pageants worthy of Cecil B. De Mille himself. There are about 325 kids at Holy Trinity elementary, and somehow everyone manages to jam onstage for the next-to-the-last number -- it's called "My God Lay There" -- by which point several of the aluminum-foil halos of the angels are falling off, and somebody is picking his nose (more than one somebody, actually), and the edges of the scenery have begun to pucker.
Every year I embarrass myself and my family by starting to cry at the finale of the Holy Trinity Christmas Pageant. I can't help it. It's the hokiness, it's the beauty, it's the sense of the infinite and eternal, it's those scrubbed faces, it's the memory of when I too was small and stood on stages in Illinois in Christmas pageants of the 1950s, portraying with everything I had in me the third evergreen tree from the left in the Manger Scene.
This year, as at every inaugural since Eisenhower's second, Charlie Brotman, Washington native and PR man nonpareil, will call the parade. He'll be positioned directly across from the president's reviewing stand, high up on a platform, in a little booth with an open window. He will be standing the entire time. Before him will be a loose-leaf binder on a music stand. Around his neck will be a pair of high-powered binoculars. Beside him will be a spotter wired for sound. On his hands will be a pair of North Face "Gore Windstopper" gloves purchased three weeks ago at Hudson Trail Outfitters.
Charlie Brotman's voice will boom over the loudspeakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, now coming off 15th Street onto Pennsylvania Avenue, the United States Marine Corps Band!"
And America will cheer.
Last time, when the University of Arkansas Marching Band hove into view, Brotman boomed, so he recalls, "Mr. President, here comes the Arkansas band. They say they have an opening for a saxophone player -- any interest?" The man across the street put his hands up and pantomimed a big: Not this time, Charlie!
"It's the biggest thrill I've ever had of anything I've ever done, calling these parades," says Brotman. "I have a feeling of exaltation. . . . Here's a Washingtonian brought up in Northeast Washington, Fourth and Todd Place, just getting this kind of opportunity of a lifetime, being part of something this spectacular.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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