Fellow citizens; I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united Ameria.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President, the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony. -- George Washington Second Inaugural Address, in its entirety.
Short, bittersweet, to the point. One hundred thirty-five words, including salutation. And while some who have since entertained "this distinguished honor" labored long hours to make their seminal remarks to their countrymen memorable, has anyone really laid it on the line any better?
I have no idea what our 40th president plans to tell his fellow citizens come next Tuesday, or how many words he'll take to say it. Nevertheless, the rhetorical truism of the hour being that what this country needs is a good inspirational pep talk, chances are Ronald Reagan will follow recent custom and go for an inaugural spiel of 20 to 30 minutes' duration. This, despite the fact that the vagaries of tradition will require that he utter those uplifting phrases through wind-chapped lips to a frostbitten live audience, under weather conditions similar to those that daunt even young mastodons whenever Cleveland or Philadelphia enjoys the home field advantage in NFL play-off competition.
Indeed, we ridicule Pete Rozelle for allowing such January lunacy in an electronic age when the audience that counts is watching the game not from the grandstand but from McLuhan's great community living room; yet the high priest of professional football has at least been shrewd enough to schedule our most solemn religious ceremony, the Super Bowl, among warm weather sites.
Not so the keepers of our country's secular ritual, who have been far less flexible and imaginative in adapting the presidential inaugural to modern times. This year, for example, merely changing the site of the swearing-in ceremony from the east to the west Capitol facade led one usually level-headed senator to warn that tampering with custom so cavalierly might invite some structural cave-in.
As for the Reagan inaugural planners' daring proposal to limit next Tuesday's procession of frozen drum majorettes to a single hour, the political fallout over that one is still dropping down from outraged marching societies, band directors and other traditionalists who hold that no American president truly earns the keys to the White House without first enduring an interminable parade.
The problem facing the Reagan planners is, of course, that they are operating within the framework of a political institution so outmoded that it defies minor alteration. Like our quadrennial party conventions, which now serve no purpose other than to give summer televiewers two weeks' respite from prime-time reruns, the presidential inaugural as we know it is an idea whose time is long gone. It cannot be merely tinkered with. It needs to bve agonizingly reappraised, then dismantled and restructured.
Start, as long as we're talking about Great New Beginnings, with the inaugural ceremony per se: it should be held indoors, televised to the nation and world before a Joint Session of the Senate and House, with dignitaries and guests seated in the galleries. A direct steal from the State of the Union format, right? Wrong. The State of the Union format is in fact a direct steal from the First and Second Washington Inaugural Addresses, delivered indoors in Philadelphia. By today's cosmic standards our American forebears may have been rustic simpletons, but at least they had sense enough to take shelter from the cold.
All right, the oath-taking is finished, the new president has delivered his inspirational message; what next? Given the sorry state he told us the country was in during the campaign, he proceeds directly to the White House and gets right down to work. Period. Whether he chooses to walk, jog, ride a horse or take a limo down Pennsylvania Avenue we leave to his own instinct for symbolism. But as for the inaugural parade, forget it. You want a parade? We have a great one in the nation's capital each spring, with every American state and territory represented. Let our new president pay his ceremonial parade-watching dues during the Cherry Blossom Festival, which takes place during one of those rare periods during the year when Wshington's climate is fit for civilized man, not to forget majorettes.
So much for the parade, which leaves only the ball, gala, concert, fireworks display and assorted other items of pomp and pageantry associated with past and present New Beginnings. The ball? The memory lingers of past inaugural nights in beautiful midwinter Washington: tens of thousands of long-gowned women and penguinized men sloshing their way through muddied snow banks to make it to an overstuffed hall where, with luck, they may get their ration of celebrants' champagne poured into the $100 plastic rather than the $50 paper cup. Great fun, if your taste runs to parodies on the baroque period of American high style. We can newly begin very well without that particular mass ritual. Private parties for the winners to celebrate and the losers to commiserate? Fine. My objection, understand, isn't to genuine festivity, only to that which, suffocated by ersatz tradition, passes for festivity.
Which brings us, finally, to the gala, concert, fireworks display, etc. Let us, by all means, keep the pageantry of American art and entertainment as part of our inaugural show, from Lionel Hampton to the National Symphony to the Zambelli Brothers. But let that part be deferred until after the first 100 days. Say until mid-April, when the show can take place in the great outdoors, on the Washington Monument grounds. Come one, come all.
But not in Washington in January, thank you. No, if we must go outdoors to celebrate any part of our quadrennial new beginning, then, like the high priest of pro football, let's be flexible about it: rotate the inaugural among warm-weather sites. Next time around, Miami.