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Wary Familiarity Marks Second Oath-Takings

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E12

President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, walk along Pennsylvania Ave on Inauguration Day 1993. Rich Lipski, The Washington Post.
The first time he starred in America's largest quadrennial gathering of tuxedos, Bill Clinton could honestly boast that his presidency celebrated a nation's longing for the new.

"We have heard the trumpets," the just-minted, 46-year-old president declared four years ago. "We have changed the guard."

So today, with trumpets no longer heralding a new kid in town and with Clinton's no-longer fresh face shadowed by a campaign finance scandal, what can his final inauguration celebrate?

The "urgent question" at the first party, Clinton said, was how "we can make change our friend." The nagging question for the second party, indeed for his entire second term, is how to serve up an absence of change and sell it as progress.

Clinton is the sixth president this century and the 15th president in the nation's history to try to cook this paradoxical inaugural dish. Based on what Americans have sampled since 1793, when George Washington wore a black velvet suit trimmed with silver lace to his second swearing-in and delivered a speech that managed to be both short and dull, these ceremonial offerings often don't go down very well.

As with second marriages, second inaugurations have a built-in absence of anticipation, a wary familiarity on the part of both incumbent and country that no amount of parades, parties or commemorative gewgaws can disguise. To pretend otherwise, as Lynn Martin, a former Republican congresswoman from Illinois, bluntly explained at President Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, "just looks dumb."

Fear of looking dumb has spooked recently reelected presidents, preventing them and their backers from cranking up second-term celebrations into second comings. While each inauguration traditionally costs millions more than the one that went before, there has been a conscious effort on the part of incumbents to back away from the most showy (and easily lampooned) excesses that marked their initial coming to power.

For the second time around, Richard M. Nixon's planners moved inaugural balls from ritzy private hotels to public halls, Reagan's followers discouraged GOP worthies from wearing rubies or eating caviar and Clinton's people are scaling back the number of festive days from four to three and shifting the emphasis from revelry to education (even as they inflate the number of inaugural balls to a record 14).

"A second inaugural really is a different kettle of fish. It is more a vindication than a celebration. The magic of a new president and a new term isn't there," says Philip C. Brooks, a retired National Archives scholar who served as official historian for the inaugural committees of Presidents Nixon, George Bush and Clinton.

A high-visibility measure of the lack of magic this time around is the yawning inaugural reaction of MTV. In 1993, the rock-music network sponsored the hottest ball in town and televised it live. But not this time. Instead, MTV, along with Conde Nast, will host a "smallish scale after-hours cocktail party" that will not be televised, according to spokeswoman Carol Robinson. "MTV never does anything twice," she added.

A bottom-line measure of the lack of magic back through history is that second inaugurations had always lost money until Nixon's and Reagan's operatives figured out how to grease the second-time-around skids with corporate money. Clinton's people, desperate to avoid the fund-raising allegations that stained the 1996 campaign, have limited donations to $100. They can, however, feed off a $9 million surplus from 1993, when huge corporate donations were accepted.

The very meaning of the word "inauguration" points to the logical and emotional kinks that have to be smoothed over when presidents do this thing more than once. To inaugurate, according to the first definition listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, is "to admit or induct a person to an office or dignity." By this standard, every second inauguration (except in the case of Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms) has been oxymoronic. It admitted a person to an office he already occupied. It conferred an honor already held.

Americans have, by tradition, witnessed ever larger parties for these mass exercises in ceremonial redundancy for the simple and redundant reason that it is our tradition. It is a make-it-up-as-you-go-along tradition, with each president and each inaugural committee freed by the Constitution to do virtually anything they want so long as the 35-word oath of office is delivered at about noon on Jan. 20.

It did not start out this way. Washington saw no reason to uncork a multi-day bash merely for having managed to hang onto his job. At his second inaugural, he dispensed with the kingly pageantry of his first. His second time around, there was no escort of grenadiers with white feathers in their caps, nor did the general enter the capital (then New York City) aboard a magnificent barge that was greeted by the report of cannon and the clanging of bells.

Instead, Washington took a carriage to a hall in Philadelphia (the federal city on the Potomac was still being planned), repeated the prescribed presidential oath and finished off the day's business by delivering the 135 unremarkable words that were destined to become the shortest inaugural speech ever given. Washington then departed without benefit of pomp or parade.

George Washington entering New York City, the capital at that time.
After Washington, second-term modesty fell from fashion. Excepting times of war, the no-frills second inaugural went the way of the 135-word speech. For two centuries, there has been a steady escalation of verbiage and expectations, as well as of the number of well-heeled hangers-on who pay ever larger amounts of money so they can feel important as they party.

A dark curiosity of second inaugurations is their capacity to inspire wretched weather. Before today's swearing-in, eight of the previous 14 second-term ceremonies have been accompanied by notably foul climate.

The second term of Ulysses S. Grant occasioned the second-worst inaugural weather in history. In sleet, snow and strong winds, Grant watched a military parade in which the valves in musical instruments iced up, cadets fainted from cold and tears froze on the cheeks of drummer boys. Festivities then shifted to the grand inaugural ball, held in a temporary wooden wigwam on Judiciary Square.

There, in a grand ballroom invaded by a zero-degree northerly wind, guests kept their coats on and danced to ward off frostbite. They chopped at frozen oysters and frozen turkeys. They failed to notice as a flock of caged canaries, brought north to sing for the second-term president, froze to death.

The worst inaugural weather arrived a dozen years ago with Reagan's second term. A morning temperature of 4 degrees below zero and a windchill factor of 25 below forced the president, for the first time in the nation's history, to cancel all outdoor inaugural events. Instead of a million visitors and residents cheering along the parade route, outdoor Washington became a crystalline, snow-covered, blue-skied ghost city.

To "inaugurate," according to a tertiary meaning of the word, is "to consecrate or install after taking omens or auguries." Bad weather at second inaugurations has often augured trouble. Reagan's big chill was followed by the Iran-contra scandal. Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural (which inspired the single most memorable inaugural address, which concluded "With malice toward none, with charity for all") came on a day of what Walt Whitman called "slanting rain, full of rage." Pedestrians who could not swim were warned away from the muddy streets. Six weeks after Lincoln delivered the speech that rose beyond partisan politics into the realm of healing poetry, he was assassinated.

Not all of the bad omens for second terms have been weather-related. An augur of mean times ahead for a second-term president was dragged, quite literally, through the streets of Washington on Jan. 20, 1973.

A 25-foot-long rat, made out of paper and chicken wire and towed by about 200 noisy yippies, kicked off a day that witnessed the largest anti-inauguration demonstration in American history. More than 25,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters encircled the Washington Monument. And the rat, yippies said, symbolized Richard M. Nixon.

The passage of time, of course, is needed before inaugural omens can be properly read. In the case of Nixon's second inaugural, the big rat did not strike the public as a symbol of Nixon's impending doom. This newspaper, in its wisdom, wrote in its lead front-page coverage of Nixon's second inaugural that the ceremony went well and was "unmarred by any serious incidents."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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