It was one of those days when the old umbilical refused to let you get very far from the television set. Try as one might to dredge up cynical or skeptical thoughts, the idea of not getting caught up in all the rosy good will of President Reagan's second inauguration became about as unthinkable as refusing to clap one's hands to revive an expiring Tinkerbell when "Peter Pan" was televised back in the '50s.
And here we were back in the '50s again and wasn't it all wonderful, parade or no? You could try to resist or you could be like Dan Rather and just let yourself get carried away. Dan's window misted up and so did Dan. The window in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, from which the CBS anchor had a sterling view of the Capitol dome and would have watched the parade had there been one.
But the intense cold kept fogging it up, so that suddenly it would look as if Dan was sitting in front of an impressionist painting of the Capitol, not the real thing. During commercials, CBS News assistants would rush forward with squeegees and paper towels and clean the window off. Correspondent Bruce Morton said on the air that the Capitol was taking on the mystical vanishing qualities of Brigadoon.
Demonstrators protesting Reagan's Central America policies, their plans to be seen during the parade scotched, marched around outside that CBS window in the hope a camera would be trained on them.
Then, not long after the swearing-in ceremonies and Reagan's second Inaugural Address, Rather was talking in front of the foggy window with correspondents Morton and Bob Schieffer. It was what-a-great-country talk. Rather returned to the subject of how the weather had altered the pageantry and then said, "None of that diminishes at least our silent singing of that solemn patriotic hymn that goes -- " Then he paused, and gulped, and struggled to continue, with his eyes glistening, "Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light."
There could be no question he was honestly moved. Dan Rather is like Ronald Reagan. He has this deep pocket of vulnerability. These are two sensitive guys.
"Well, I think 'choking up' is overstating it," Rather said later by phone from the gallery, sounding slightly and unnecessarily embarrassed about his display of emotion. "But I like these occasions and I let it show, perhaps more than I should have or would have liked to. In sophisticated Washington, it's hard to talk in these terms. But I was aware of the importance of the day. That sense builds in me as the day goes on. I start out in the morning and say, 'I'll get through this day with no sentimentality,' but I've yet to get through a day like this without it."
Almost anything genuine on fakery-clogged television is to be welcomed, with open eyes and open arms. Beneath the mandated pomp of Inauguration Day, there was much that seemed genuine, from Reagan making a change in his Inaugural Address while he gave it (he corrected a reference to standing "at the steps" of the Capitol, saying, "Or we would have been standing at the steps, if it hadn't gotten so cold"); to Mrs. Reagan's laughter at the afternoon band concert set up as a parade surrogate, when she realized she had forgotten "to introduce my roommate," the president; to the teary majorette from Reagan's birthplace, Tampico, Ill., who sobbingly told CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg that she and the band she came in with had practiced in weather so cold that the whistle stuck to her lip, only to come to Washington and find the parade shut down by single-digit temperatures.
"It was like a bubble," she said, heartbreakingly, "and it burst."
But the fact is, those who performed indoors at the Capital Centre later in the day got better TV exposure than they probably would have gotten in the parade. And being seen on television is certainly part of the thrill of coming here to march. Footage of band members from all over being interviewed on the networks was more dramatic than any parade footage would have been. In a way, it made an event day a news story day as well.
And as Andrew Rooney said on CBS, parades are pretty obsolete anyway. "I don't think anybody who was going to watch is that disappointed," said Rooney, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue, his mike-clutching hand wrapped up like a mummy's. "That's what's happened to parades in America. Parades are mostly for the people marching in them." On ABC, David Brinkley suggested that calling off the parade because of cold weather was a good idea since "not even Benny Goodman can play a clarinet with gloves on." And Morton of CBS said a Washington visitor who had marched in an antiwar protest in 1968 had told him yesterday, "If it had been this cold that year, I would have been for the war."
What a disguised blessing it would be if Mother Nature's intercession yesterday put an end to the whole outmoded inaugural parade business. Parades are old-world things, impractical in television times. Further, why should mobs stand in freezing temperatures to hear a speech that is being delivered mainly for the television audience anyway? Many of them would have brought TV sets and radios with them regardless to help them see and hear. The scaled-down inaugural ceremonies yesterday seemed not only particularly appropriate for an incumbent, but a sensible alternative to the traditional outdoor extravaganzas.
Washington's big chill produced the first cool inaugural.
Now in Moscow they probably would have rolled out the tanks for a parade if one were scheduled (and heaven knows Muscovites would probably scoff at the contention of Washingtonians that it was even so much as brisk yesterday), but this isn't Moscow, this is the United States of America, the land of the free, and the home of the -- uh-oh, there goes Dan again!
As for Reagan's speech, it was lean, trim and unpretentious. He did not have to shout for the benefit of an outdoor public address system, but then he wouldn't have shouted anyway. It was not so much an inaugural address as an inaugural conversation. Yes it was tailored for television; so what else is new?
Changes in plans for the inauguration certainly did not find the networks with their cables cut. They adapted without hitch. At ABC News, wheels were set in motion late on Super Bowl night. While News and Sports president Roone Arledge, with director Roger Goodman, zoomed across the country in an ABC corporate jet (arriving in Washington at 5 a.m. yesterday), a dozen ABC News personnel were dispatched to the Capital Centre to check it out for camera positions.
At 2 a.m., two ABC crews showed up at the Centre to tape, among other things, the preparations the other two networks were making to cover yesterday's parade-alternative event. CBS News claims to have acted quickly enough to be the first network to rent the five cameras and other equipment owned by the Centre.
Network spokesmen said there was no appreciable additional cost to them in pulling up stakes from Lafayette Square and heading out to Landover with their equipment. But NBC News had shelled out something in the neighborhood of $20,000 the night before when it was assumed the parade would go on cold or not. Networkers convinced the owners of a sporting goods store to remain open late so that parkas, gloves and face masks could be purchased for crews and correspondents. Forty electric blankets were sent to Lafayette Square, mainly to keep the equipment from freezing.
ABC News was to have handled pool coverage along the parade route. One camera atop the Washington Monument remained to give a wide shot of the Mall, but another, on the roof of the Treasury Building, was pulled off with the acquiescence of the other two networks, and the two men manning it were invited indoors, because otherwise, an ABC spokesman had said, "those guys are going to freeze to death."
As a nail-biter and cliffhanger, this inauguration had nothing on the last one, when scenes from the ceremonies were being intercut with live reports on American hostages at last being freed in Iran. But every network had something to be proud of yesterday.
CBS coverage was emphatically the best -- the best pictures overall, the best on-air talent by far, the best communicated sense-of-event. Dan Rather performed a national service by advising Lesley Stahl and Charles Kuralt, on the air, not to talk during the performance of the bands at the Capital Centre. "When they strike up the music, let's listen to it," Rather nudged them.
ABC had a witty David Brinkley, beaming ebullience, to assist Peter Jennings, and, sitting in an apparently frigid Lafayette Square, with a spectacular vantage point on nothing, chief political correspondent Sander Vanocur and commentator George Will. Once when Jennings asked how it was going across from the White House, Vanocur replied with helpless candor, "Well, nothing's happening. Nobody's here but us electronic chickens."
Stationed in the cold so far from the action, Will looked forlornly wilted, like a puppet with the hand removed.
ABC's proudest prepared piece was a 10-minute Ted Koppel-narrated retrospective on Day 444 of the hostage crisis -- Reagan's first inauguration. ABC editors spent an entire week cutting the piece, its footage culled from 50 hours of videotape in the ABC News library. It was a solid achievement for all concerned.
And NBC News dispatched Roger Mudd, the reigning dean of TV political correspondents, to corral and buttonhole politicos after the niceties of the inaugural ceremony were over, and Mudd's relish for this kind of roughhouse work was contagious. Sen. Alan Simpson told Mudd that wholesale slaughter of "sacred cows" was about to begin in Washington. And Richard Viguerie on ABC had in essence declared good riddance to James A. Baker and predicted a wild conservative heyday for the second Reagan term (yeah, right, sure). Commentator Will said later that Viguerie's comments were "insulting" to the president because they assumed his actions and decisions are always under the control of someone else.
Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor (later replaced by Connie Chung) looked lonely on NBC, which, as usual, had the worst looking set, the tattiest graphics (except for a computerized blueprint of the Capitol building), the grubbiest production values. Brokaw and Chancellor were seated in front of a static Washington backdrop that took up much too much of the frame. They were so far apart they should have been phoning each other instead of just talking to each other. And they had to sit behind a tacky banner that said "NBC News," so they looked like radio announcers covering a high school basketball game.
Brokaw is known in the industry as someone who can run the show if he chooses. He ought to take a peek at a tape of yesterday's NBC broadcast today and wonder if perhaps time has passed NBC by. Could anyone look at the crisp, beautifully composed shot of Rather and the Capitol dome on CBS and not realize that NBC's anchor shot was hopelessly outclassed? These things do matter on television, where even the most substantial content can be negated by lapses in style. It was also a mistake for NBC to ignore so much of the patriotic revue at the Capital Centre just so it could present another rush of booth chatter.
CBS had its share of minor goofs, though. Just as President Reagan turned to kiss Nancy after taking the oath, the CBS director cut to a shot of a stupid cannon going off outside. An absolutely classic, largely indefensible Bad Call. And here the inaugural committee had paid the network the inadvertent tribute of having one of Copland's "Old American Songs" sung at the ceremony -- the very same Copland tune used as the theme music for "CBS Reports." Early in the day, Rather had clumsily remonstrated Bill Moyers on the air for having mispronounced the name of Fairleigh Dickinson University, although Rather himself had previously tossed the ball to a reporter he called "the frost-biten sic Phil Jones."
Earlier still, on ABC's "Good Morning America," the fact that Rich Little and Patricia Neal were next on that show's bill was superimposed briefly right over Nancy Reagan's face.
Mrs. Reagan was Nancy With the Perky Hat during the day's festivities. Her bouncy routine at the Capital Centre found her at her most natural and she seemed unusually warm. President Reagan gave another rollicking performance, laughing, applauding, clapping along in rhythm as the band and chorus tore off yet another patriotic foot-stomper (though only the ABC audience got to see that).
Do you ever get the feeling that we are all participants in a movie about a great president, that the electorate was functioning in the last election as the casting director who thought Reagan deserved to keep the lead role? It isn't quite real, is it? But whatever may be deplorable about the whole illusive business was repressed into insignificance yesterday by the sheer cheer of the celebrating. The mist in Dan Rather's eyes said it all.
Even Bill Moyers seemed somewhat disarmed by Reagan's being Reagan. "I dearly love to watch the man when he speaks, Dan," Moyers said. "It's like watching Houdini, except that instead of ropes and chains and saws and rabbits, he uses nostalgia, sentiment and piety. And it's a wonderful act. It's a good act. It's one of the best political acts to come along in a long time."
When the movie's over, the actor will leave the screen. But, one hopes, not one minute before. The post-election intermission ended this weekend when the big fat second-act overture took over. At the afternoon shebang, Reagan wandered into reminiscence again, this time about his abortive career as a drum major in Dixon, Ill. He told the crowd he remembered a parade in which he'd been instructed to follow "the man on the white horse" only to discover later that "everybody had turned a corner. I was walking down the wrong street by myself."
If he is walking down the wrong street now, he is not alone.