Let's have more of these presidential inaugurations. They're fun, they take people's minds off politics, and they bring back vaudeville. This weekend's orgy of television was also an orgy of max Americana, the hoopla attending Ronald Reagan's second inaugural mingling in the mind with that surrounding Super Bowl XIX, all of it combined in a living room extravaganza so determinedly upbeat that nothing seemed capable of threatening it.
"Is the world going to end tomorrow? Probably not," said John Houseman yesterday. This strangely appropriate but purely coincidental sentiment was part of a Smith-Barney commercial aired on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." The Brinkley show, NBC's "Meet the Press" and the CBS program "Face the Nation" all took turns with the president's men, who participated in sober prognoses about the four years ahead.
This was the penance America would have to do for the let's-party privilege of watching the Super Bowl later in the day and the inaugural hoop-de-doo today.
Inaugural and Super Bowl came together in one brief wacky moment at 6:15 last night when President Reagan, standing in front of a painting in the White House, tossed a coin to determine which team would kick off. Captain Dwight Stephenson of the Miami Dolphins called "heads," former NFL star Hugh McElhenny shouted "Mr. President, will you please toss the coin?" And then there was a shot of Reagan throwing the coin into the air and of it falling upon a blue carpet. The president said, "It is tails." He also said goodbye to the game, via satellite, of course, with an old football prayer that ended "and may no one have any regrets."
The president and the painting were back 3 1/2 hours later for the traditional Transmission of the Presidential Congratulatory Message. This year, thanks to satellite technology, the president could be seen as well as heard making his remarks. He was first identified as "a visitor from the East," which suggested the imminent arrival of Carnak the Magnificent, but it was Gipper the Magnificent instead.
The game had been long and not very exciting. San Francisco was so far ahead all the time that what should have been an electric clash was on the fizzly side. In the booth, Washington Redskin Joe Theismann did not win the most valuable commentator award. He had little to contribute on this maiden voyage into Superboothdom, and his voice lacked authority. Roone Arledge's decision to throw the capable and likable O.J. Simpson out of the booth seemed unkinder and more capricious than ever in light of Theismann's weak showing, although in the post-game show, The Juice threw cold water on a wet blanket when he predicted the same two teams would be back for Super Bowl XX.
When in doubt, cut to Tom Landry and his hat. Landry was stationed near a monitor and was in charge of the ABC version of the CBS chalkboard gimmick. Landry couldn't get his famous hat over his headset so there it sat on top of the monitor. It didn't appear to threaten the deep personal relationship Landry has with his chapeau.
A Super Bowl is not just the football equivalent of an eclipse, it is also a parade of commerce. One gets a better feeling for the Zeitgeist of the moment from the commercials than from the game. This year there seemed to be more commercials for computers than there were for beer. Computers, computers! If it wasn't a computer, it was a car with an onboard computer in the dashboard. Even Charlie Chaplin, who made the movie "Modern Times" as a warning against technocracy amok, is called into the service of the computer via the tramp character in the IBM ads.
Contrary to a story in last week's trade press, Apple computers did not withdraw this year's big-budget spectacular commercial, a follow-up to last year's one-time-only "1984" parody. This year's version ran as scheduled, late in the game, and depicted a long line of businessmen who marched to a cliff to the tune "Hi Ho, Hi Ho" from Disney's "Snow White," and then lemming-like plunged over the precipice, abyss-bound. It cost one million bucks just to buy the one-minute of air time in which to show the commercial, which was awful in its overstatement.
Nevertheless, it was a bit more impressive than the U.S. Air Force's tacky half-time show, which was stultifying. Half-time shows and Super Bowls will change dramatically when America gets wide-screen high-definition television, the old long-awaited wall screen sort of thing, still in the experimental stage. It may be accessible to select viewers in time for, say, Super Bowl XXV.
While the game was on, the network news hordes who had migrated here for special events coverage of the inaugural festivities were dashing off to White House briefings where they learned that today's parade had been canceled because of bitter cold. Then they all had to fly into huddles to decide how they would modify their coverage plans. NBC was first to announce a firm schedule: on the air from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. (instead of the planned 4 p.m.) today. CBS spokesmen said the plan was to go on at 11 a.m., off at 1 p.m., then return to the air at 3 p.m. for whatever alternative inaugural event has been set up. ABC said that its coverage of the swearing-in would start at 11 a.m. and last at least through the ceremonies in the Capitol rotunda.
On Saturday night, Washington went "Hollywood Palace" and "Las Vegas Hilton" with the almost-live (one-hour tape-delayed) telecast on ABC of the 50th Presidential Inauguration gala, a sparklingly good, surprisingly tasteful show that featured flocks of stars and Class-A production values. It was state of the pop art. And Ronald Reagan proved his camera value yet again, as if any more proof were needed. Reagan is even an entertaining audience. Every reaction shot of him revealed him to be in either the early or advanced stages of infectious delight.
Only the pre-taped opening of the show seemed confused. It appeared that the election of Martin Van Buren was somehow being equated with Frank Sinatra's singing at this year's gala as a historic occurrence. Huh? Sinatra himself looked like a surly bodyguard when he accompanied the Reagans into the Convention Center at the beginning of the show. The singer appeared to be having trouble keeping up with the president's John-Waynely gait.
Ruffles, flourishes, fabulous camera work (including shots from a costly remote-controlled camera in the ceiling), a lustrous audience and a semi-lustrous assemblage on the stage hurly'd and burly'd. It's too bad Ed Sullivan didn't live to see it. One knew of course there would be great flails and flurries of patriotic gush, but there seemed less than at the last Reagan inaugural, and what there was had a less combative, pugnacious tone.
Naturally someone had to sing "God Bless the U.S.A.," also known as "Theme from the 18-Minute Reagan Movie," and so Mac Davis and a marching band got it out of the way right at the top. Many of the stars appearing were only there to introduce other stars. Mr. T introduced Rich Little, who did a funny impersonation act, "The Ronnie Reagan Rag." Tom Selleck introduced the Beach Boys, now looking wearily like The Beach Old Boys. Pearl Bailey introduced the ingenious and captivating juggler Michael Davis. Merv Griffin introduced Donna Summer, who was dressed for singing "On Sunset" but who sang instead "Livin' in America" with the U.S. Naval Glee Club, and called out, "We love you, Mr. Reagan!" You old cutie-pie, you!
The inspired interlude was a visitation from Don Rickles, so much more audacious than Bob Hope would have been. "Is this too fast, Ronnie?" he asked Reagan at one point. "Now you're big -- and you're getting on my nerves," Rickles said to the president. His hair white and his girth stockier, Rickles looked like a prankish Khrushchev. Elizabeth Taylor looked on the other hand resplendent, Ray Charles sang "America the Beautiful" one more time (one last time, please?), and there was a token tad of tony boredom from the opera house, soprano Frederica von Stade.
Where the show became sad or off-putting was at the moments that the martini generation seemed to be looking at the country and proclaiming it theirs again. James Stewart mumbling along about "the old Hollywood" where "concepts like patriotism and family were proudly extolled" was a touch pitiful. "Mr. President, I salute you," he said shakily, and Reagan saluted back. Reagan will always return a salute. He returned one from Gen. Mac Davis earlier in the evening.
And then poor old Dean Martin singing, of all things, "It seems we stood and talked like this before . . . but who knows, where or when?" which became sort of Stupor Song. Sinatra, in an exchange of forced banter with Martin, referred to "the election that we won" and said Reagan's victory would mean "four more years of potting" (partying). Even allowing for the mandatory euphorics of the occasion, this sounded pathetic, like Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys tailing after swells and imagining themselves to be gents, too. They don't want to entertain the possibility that Reagan made himself respectable by getting out of show business.
So they gave an inaugural occasion the slightly seedy aura of a Friar's Club Roast.
Sinatra sang beautifully, however. He thankfully did not reprise "Nancy with the Reagan Face" (Mrs. Reagan looked good in every shot). He did sit down on the apron of the stage to sing "One for My Baby" while Mikhail Baryshnikov danced to it, and this was a classy act for sure. Heck, it was sublime.
At the end of the show, Reagan and the first lady came forward from their seats to the circular stage and Reagan made a few remarks. One may have feared that his reminiscence about Helen Hayes reciting "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at Soldiers' Field in Chicago years ago would turn into another trip up the California coast. But Reagan escaped from the anecdote gracefully, like Houdini out of a submerged steamer trunk. He looked cheered and grateful. But he didn't look like he wanted Frankie hanging around the White House and calling out "Hey, Stinky!" to him. Reagan, at least, has grown up.
It used to be that this kind of entertainment mishmosh -- a juggler, a diva, a comic, a glee club -- was a regular fixture on television several times a week. The production team of Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion (Hemion also directs) brought that kind of television back with sleek style. It was obvious that tons of money was lavished on the production (though not on the stars, who worked for scale), but it's still rather amazing that an essentially live broadcast could look so polished and glitchless, given the logistical obstacles that had to be overcome.
From the living room vantage point, this looked like a super show. Also from a living room vantage point, it seemed clear that Billy Graham had the best tan in the house.
Yesterday morning, Reagan aides were parceled out to the networks for their Sunday news shows. Nobody looked like they really wanted to be where they were, under the lights, but they all knew it was part of the ritual. Obviously the presidential inauguration is another reinvented event shaped for the demands of television. On a "Meet the Press" televised live from the White House, chief of staff James A. Baker, asked by Roger Mudd about the dominating influence of television in elections, said, "I accept the fact that it has become increasingly more important in the presidential election process."
"Can a candidate win if he does not caress the lens?" Marvin Kalb asked him.
"Yes, I think he can," said Baker. "But he starts out with a strong disadvantage."
At the same moment, at least as the shows are seen in Washington, Donald Regan talked to Mudd and Kalb on "Press," Mr. and Mrs. George Bush talked to Lesley Stahl on "Face the Nation" on CBS, and Baker was chatting with Brinkley and company on ABC. Brinkley actually did his show twice. Normally the 10:30 feed is repeated by stations who air Brinkley at 11:30. But the second feed yesterday was interrupted for the "private" but nationally televised swearing-in of Reagan and Bush from the White House, so Brinkley really did two different shows.
On both of them, columnist George F. Will was almost delirious with rapture over the occasion. He pronounced the swearing-in "a miracle" and said, "I found it very stirring." When Brinkley worried about the Marine Band blowing into their trumpets in 10-degree weather, Will piped back, "The Marines can do anything. They were looking for a few good men and they got them." On the earlier feed, he also got to make his usual sort of agreeably windy professorial pronouncements, social change category: "Change comes in a democracy when fear does the work of reason" and "Certainly nothing in history suggests that contentment is the fuel of radical social change."
Meanwhile Dan Rather took to the chilled air on CBS for the swearing-in broadcast and said to viewers, "Folks, we are talking cold." Correspondent Bruce Morton said the public swearing-in on Monday "amounts to a television rerun" because everyone would have already seen it on Sunday. After the White House ceremony, when Reagan and Bush stepped outside briefly for photos, and CBS correspondent Bill Plante shouted a question to Reagan about what his second administration would be like, Reagan said, "Well, I hope it'll be warmer." What a great guy!
Rather was as impressed by the ceremony as Will was. "I don't see how anybody can watch that and not swell up and well up just a bit," he said. Oh but there would be so many more opportunities for swelling and welling in the hours of populist pageantry ahead. One interesting effect from all this may be that the man who ran, twice, against Washington was, with this protracted television weekend, probably contributing to the benignification of Washington in the national eye. It looked like a cold town but a game town on TV. Big stars come here to see and be seen by other big stars. West Coast, East Coast, all around the town.
The smiles looked real all around, too, but mostly the one on Ronald Reagan's happy-old-guy face. Is the world going to end today? Probably not.