Inaugurals

Hard to believe it’s been only 44 years since Jimmy Carter’s inaugural.

My wife and I stood in bitter cold not 150 feet from the portico as dignitaries filed in. We were close enough to see breath steaming from people’s mouths on this sunny, bitter cold day.

There was Carter, Ford, Mondale, Rockefeller, the chief judge of the supreme court. No Nixon. “Look at that,” I said to my wife. “The whole government’s up there. Suppose somebody…”. I wouldn’t dare say something like that at today’s inaugural.

No doubt the recently deposed former president was on many minds that day. In a way, I owed my one and only live inaugural to Nixon.

Freeman editors weren’t quite sure how to cover the unfolding Watergate scandals in 1974. Assigning a reporter (me) full-time to Washington to cover the hearings wasn’t feasible. Besides, we could catch it all on live TV.

The plan they came up with was both simple and practical. We would telephone our congressman, Hamilton Fish Jr., three-term Republican of Millbrook, at his Washington, D.C. home every morning at 7 a.m. for updates from his perch as a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Surprisingly, Fish, a genial type, went along with it.

Naturally, Fish couldn’t share everything with us, but through a series of almost daily interviews he gave readers a unique view of history playing out in real time. Fish, understand, had been a Nixon supporter after Nixon came to Dutchess County to campaign for him in 1966 and he was loyal.  To a point. It was fascinating to hear Fish move from doubtful to skeptical and finally to a willingness to impeach the president on the evidence. At the time, no president had been impeached in over 100 years.

Along the way we developed a good working relationship, so I wasn’t surprised when Fish rang me up at the office the month before the Carter inaugural and asked if I planned to attend. By then, I’d left the Freeman and started (with two other reporters) a weekly newspaper in Kingston. Money and time were extremely tight.

“Don’t think so,” I said, “but thanks, anyway.”

“I have passes,” Fish said. “If you can make it down here, you can stay at my house.” Crank up the Chevy!

It is a sad commentary on the times we live in that the contrasts between the Carter and Biden inaugurals couldn’t be starker. We stood there in a packed crowd of thousands of people with hardly a security person in sight. At today’s ceremonies, the 400,000 COVID victims will be represented by thousands of American flags. Owing to the Capitol invasion, upwards of 25,000 heavily armed National Guards soldiers will be on full alert. Members of congress might still be wondering where all those armed forces were on Jan. 6 when they really needed them. Ceremonies will be virtual, something nobody could have dreamed of 44 years ago.

My hope is that all this shall pass, that with a clean slate our new president will deliver a message of hope and healing, and mean it.