Ronald Reagan, his first moments in office accompanied by a happy ending for the nation, assumed the powers of the president of the United States yesterday amid amotional circumstances unmatched in America's 48 previous inaugurations.
Only minutes before he took the oath of office as the 40the president, dramatic news bulletins, which turned out to be minutes premature, were flashed from Iran bringing the word the nation had been waiting for 14 frustrating months -- the hostages were free.
Reagan's message to the country, delivered in confident tones before a vast throng gathered below the Capitol's West Front and millions more watching on television, was in keeping with his campaign promise. He pledged immediate action to deal with what he called "an economic affliction of great proportions" confronting the United States and promised to "curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people."
President Reagan's theme was optimism, a rejection of a belief that the nation's problems are beyond solution. He spoke of the time of heroes not being over, quoted Churchill on triumphing over adversity, and told his fellow citizens, "We are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams." And: "Can we solve the problems confronting us? The answer is an unequivocal and emphatic yes."
After his address, obviously in an ebullient mood, the new president brought up the release of the hostages before congressional leaders who hosted a Capitol luncheon in his honor. The planes carrying the prisoners to freedom had cleared Iranian airspace just 30 minutes before, Reagan announced, raising a glass of California wine. "So we can all drink to this one," he said, "to all of us together."
It was a theme for a day that held far more than the usual elements of national celebration. Those two events, the coming to power of a president who promises to reverse the force and size the federal government accummulated over two generations and the freeing of the hostages, provided a unique framework for Reagan's inauguration.
But there were other elements that distinquished this inauguration. Ronald Wilson Reagan, who will be 70 on Feb. 6, becomes the oldest person to take office. Only Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had celebrated his 70th birthday two months before leaving office, was older in the presidency.
Reagan, while not the first president to come out of the West (Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon also had California backgrounds), brings to power a new era of conservatism, backed by the increasing political strength of the western states. Reagan's first act as president was an earnest gesture in support of his assertion that he intends immediate action to fulfill his conservative promises. He ordered an instand federal hiring freeze, and said he would permit only rare exceptions to it necessary "to maintain vital services."
Despite the usual euphoria of the event, the political scraps and squabbles resumed quickly, even before the new president went to work for the first time in the Oval Office. In the Senate, two of Reagan's conservative supporters, Sen. Jesse Helms and Sen. John P. East, Republicans from North Carolina, voted against Casper Weinberger's confirmation as secretary of defense and promised to oppose Reagan's nominee for deputy defense secretary as well. Helms explained on the Senate floor that, in his view, Weinberger is "not at this moment prepared to make the clean break with the very policies of the past which have managed our military and international decline."
As in every ceremony for a new administraton, there were vivid reminders of the other side of the political process that culminates in an inauguration -- the cruelty of defeat and the fickleness of a capital city that glories in winners and quickly forgets losers.
Throughout the day, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, seemed a fading, almost forgotten figure. Indeed, the outgoing president, defeated after one term in office, suffered one last frustration as the time ran out that would have permitted him personally to greet the hostages on his last day as president. His farewell words were delivered in husky tones after his arrival home in Plains, Ga. While his wife, Rosalynn, stood beside him with tears in her eyes, Carter spoke at length on the agony of the hostage ordeal, a speech he had wanted to give in his closing days in Washington.
Their daughter Amy, who had pranced her way down Pennsylvania Avenue exactly four years before at her parents' side, showed more poignantly the emotional impact of defeat. She was a study in sorrow, choked with tears and remorse, as she waited to board the plane for Georgia.
Reagan, as Carter had four years before, went out of his way to speak gracious words about his erstwhile political rival. Turning toward the outgoing president, Reagan said he wanted Americans to know how much Carter had done to carry on the tradition of an orderly transfer of power.
"By your gracious cooperation in the transition process you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other," the president said to the ex-president. "Thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the hallmark of our Republic."
Reagan, in another friendly gesture, also appointed Carter as his emissary to greet the hostage in Germany.
In any other inaugural, the shift of presidential power and the corresponding intense focus on the new leader provides its own drama. But yesterday, to an unprecedented degree, both the incoming and outgoing presidents were almost secondary to the extraordinary drama of the hostages. Both became pawns in a game of power and frustration played out to the last second and before a watching world by the leaders of Iran.
Neither Carter nor Reagan could escape the developments that kept them both, as well as their country, hanging in suspense up to the very moment that another historic shift of American power occurred.
Their day began with new hopes that the hostage ordeal, finally, would be over. Even as the crowds were taking their places along the inaugural route and across the Capitol grounds, the last elements of the story were wrung out, piece by piece, but with uncertainty remaining to the end. Those closing moments had all the elements of a fictional thriller -- or a Reagan melodrama from his Hollywood years -- and they drew the attention of the nation.
While the two men were having tea in the White House, in another of those traditional rituals that serve to mask the bitterness of campaigns, word came that buses bearing the hostages were approaching the Tehran airport. w
When they entered the presidential limousine, carrying the seal of the President of the United States, the news was that the hostages were about to board waiting planes.
When their motorcade was proceding slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue, the historic "Avenue of the Presidents" that has been the scene of moments of national joy and sorrow, of inaugural parades heralding new political leaders and funeral corteges mourning those that have passed, news reports said the planes were preparing to depart.
When Reagan was only four minutes away from the beginning of the formal presidential ceremonies, at 11:36 a.m., a news service bulletin was flashed saying simply: "Hostages freed."
In fact, neither Carter nor Reagan knew for sure what had happened. Carter told Reagan, just before the formal ceremonies began, that the planes were on the runway in Tehran, ready to go. But Reagan didn't get the official word until after he had finished his address and walked back inside the Capitol Building.
The actual departure from Iran took place five minutes after the new president concluded his address.
Reagan's inaugural will be remembered for those events, but it also made history in other respects. For the first time, the inaugural stage was situated on the West Front of the Capitol. All others had occurred on the east steps looking out over the Capitol Plaza grounds and the Supreme Court and Library of Congress buildings beyond.
The change was notable. From the promenade of the West Front, the inaugural party had a sweeping view of the capital city and its most celebrated memorials. In the distance, obscured by a slight haze on an otherwise perfect, almost balmy day, they could see the Potomic River and the land stretching out to the west. Below them were the broad avenues and the central mall of Pierre L'Enfant's original plan for Washington.
Reagan took note of the special location toward the end of his speech.
"This is the first time in our history that this ceremony has been held on the West Front of the Capitol building," he said, from a lectern shielded by bulletproof glass and hearing the presidential seal. "Standing here, we face a magnificent vista, opening up on this city's special beauty and history. fAt the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand."
He referred to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and the hills of Arlington Cemetery, using them as symbols to evoke a message that was designed to rekindle a sense of national heroism and sacrifice.
The Capitol itself over looked finer. The new president delivered his address beneath huge American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting hung from the building.
By 11 o'clock the grounds had filled, and the crowds awaited the ceremony by standing, chatting, and listening to patriotic music -- "Yankee Doodle" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- played by the Marine Band, resplendent in their bright red uniforms, directly below the presidential platform. At 11:15, as news circulated among the crowd that Pars, the Iranian news agency, was reporting the "imminent departure" of the hostages 8,000 miles away, the lights of the presidential motorcade could be seen coming down the Avenue to Capitol Hill.
The strains of "Hail to the Chief" at 11:22 signaled the arrival of Jimmy Carter on the inaugural platform. It was the last time that presidential salute would be sounded for him; some of those watching recalled how Carter had ordered it not to be played in an effort to minimize the ceremonial trappings of the office. Now, four years and a lot of history later, "Hail to the Chief" was back in vogue among the formal striped pants and mink coat attire of his successor's inagural.
Mark Hatfield, a Republican senator from Oregon and chairman of this year's Joint Congressional Committee on Inagural Ceremonies, stepped to the lectern.The formal ceremonies had begun.
Hatfield spoke of "a day when a tide of new hope is running through the land." Then he asked the crowd to join hands in the singing of "America," rendered by Michael Ryan of the Marin Band.
Reagan's pastor, the Rev. Donn Moonaw, delivered an invocation in which he offered thanks for the freeing of the hostages. It was the only mention of the imprisoned Americans during the ceremony.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart administered the vice presidential oath of office to George Bush, who repeated the words in clear tones and then waved to the crowd, his wife, Barbara, at his side.
After the playing of another hymn, "Faith of Our Fathers," the moment for the presidential transfer of power had arrived. It was 11:55 a.m. when Reagan and Chief Justice Warren Burger moved forward to the platform under slightly overcast skies and unseasonably warm sunshine.
"Governor, are you ready to take the constitutional oath?" Burger asked Reagan. "I am, Reagan replied.
His left hand on the Bible, his voice firm, Ronald Reagan repeated the simple 35-word oath that made him the 40th president of the United States and the possessor of the nation's problems. He waved to the crowd, both in front and behind him, and stood with a look of bemused pleasure while the band struck up "Hail to the Chief" for the first time in his presidency, and the muffled reports of a 21-gun salute echoed off the Capitol walls.
Then he turned toward the crowd, and the nation beyond, and delivered his 20-minute inaugural address. As he finished, the new president delivered an impromptu benediction of his own.
"God bless you and thank you," President Reagan said.
With his wife, Nancy, at his side, he acknowledged the applause of the crowd, and moved back from the lectern while the National Anthem was sung by Juanita Booker and his minister gave a brief benediction.
The ceremony was over, and the president led the way back into the Capitol. There he learned that the other side of the day, the one that always will now be associated with his inauguration, had been successfully completed, too.
The hostages were coming home just as his presidency was beginning. For that moment, at least, it seemed possible to believe his appeal for a national renewal had more than rhetorical meaning.