The cancellation of the inaugural parade is evidence of a bigger problem: our whole political calendar is wacky. Everything is scheduled for the wrong seasons.
Item: The inauguration. Could there be a worse date for an outdoor ceremony and parade than Jan. 20? Maybe Feb. 3. Even the pre-1936 inaugural date, March 4, was too cold, to the point that it cost us one president. But March 4 was too long after Election Day, people decided after watching President Hoover and President-elect Roosevelt fail to cooperate for four long months in 1932 and 1933. You don't need more than two months for transition.
Item: Transition. What's the hardest time of year to get people on the phone? The time when they're trying to wrap up year-end business? The time when secretaries and staff put in maybe two days a week? During the season from Thanksgiving to Christmas, which is when most of the real work has to be done by transition teams.
Item: The general election. In most of the country, the first Tuesday after the first Monday is often bitterly cold, which is all the more frustrating because the weather is usually pleasant only a couple of weeks before. Moreover, it gets dark awfully early on Election Day: the days are shorter since the nation has just gone off Daylight Saving Time.
Why do we have elections at such an unpropitious time? The answer is that elections were scheduled in most states in the 19th century to come after the harvest was over. Maine, a state with a short growing season, voted in September (hence the saying, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation"); elections in other states were scheduled for various times in October or November. So a nation in which 3 percent of the people live on farms is stuck with a dreadful election date to accommodate the harvest.
Item: The national conventions. They're held in the summer out of hoary tradition, because once upon a time it was easier to travel and interrupt your ordinary business for the week or two required during the summer. Nowadays that only means that conventions are conducted during dreadfully hot weather (it was 106o in Dallas last summer) and at a time when the potential audience is vastly reduced because people are on vacation, engaged in outdoor sports or just not in the mood.
Item: The primary campaign. A key part of the campaign -- determining who is, in Fred Harris' words, winnowed in and winnowed out, takes place in frigid New Hampshire and Iowa almost a year before the winning candidates are inaugurated. This and the following primaries stretch the campaign to ridiculous lengths. Voters don't always focus on the same issues then that they consider in November, and increasingly they seem to be picking candidates who articulate their gripes, from Gary Hart to Jerry Brown to George Wallace, rather than those they're willing to vote for in November, when it really counts.
So, as the disappointed band members and float decorators have reason to know, the political calendar is out of whack. Here are a couple of modest proposals for getting it back in.
First, leave the early contests where they are. Iowa and New Hampshire will schedule early caucuses and primaries if their secretaries of state have to go to jail to do so. And even if they don't count toward the nomination, journalists will cover them as if they do. A prudent reformer knows what he can't change.
Second, schedule the national conventions for June. Late primaries can be rescheduled if necessary. June is a pleasant month when people are still at home in front of their televisions.
Third, schedule the general election for late September. This will give voters a few weeks after Labor Day to focus on the candidates and the issues, and those who are at all interested will do so in the summer as well. Everyone always says the real campaign doesn't start until the World Series anyway, so this won't reduce the time that voters concentrate on the issues.
Fourth, schedule the inauguration for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Congress could come into session then too: why have it convene 17 days before the inauguration, as it does now? The chances of decent weather are far greater in November than on Jan. 20, and there's at least as much daylight; anyway, it's fine if it gets dark early, since all you're having in the evening are inaugural balls.
The one drawback of this scheme is that a constitutional amendment putting it into effect would shorten the term of the incumbent president, presumably Ronald Reagan, and the terms of the members of the 100th Congress. But Franklin Roosevelt's first term was similarly shortened by amendment, with no great loss for him or history. Reagan, who obviously admires Roosevelt and voted for him four times, undoubtedly remembers the precedent and, since he'll be nearing 78 on Jan. 20, 1989, may be more willing than some presidents to make the sacrifice. How about it?