I've only attended one: the bicentennial inauguration.. No, that wasn't in 1976. That was the nation's bicentennial, recognizing the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It was 1989. George Herbert Walker Bush took the 35-word oath while holding his left hand on the same Bible used in 1789 for the inauguration of our first president, father of our country, George Washington. It took some time, you see, to get from declaring our independence to installing our first president.
The 1989 Bicentennial Inauguration, on many souvenirs, carried the tagline "From George to George," or something like that. I purchased numerous buttons for various Bush fans, including my Lambda Chi Alpha "big brother" F. Scott McCarter.
How I ended up attending George H.W. Bush's inauguration was, as I have said before, one of my favorite sorts of adventures: last-minute and unexpected. I was a student at East Tennessee State University. Anne, a colleague from ETSU's journalism program already was working at the Kingsport Times-News. A group of students from somewhere in the newspaper's six-county coverage area was to attend the inauguration. Then-First District U.S. Congressman James H. Quillen was, of course, somehow involved.
Having a military-career uncle who'd lived in D.C. for my whole life, and a best friend who'd moved there after college, I'd frequented D.C. throughout the 80s. Anne and Uncle Harold (Osborne, my father's younger brother) had met several times over the past two years, as Uncle Harold — a stalwart ETSU alumnus and founder of the Iota Omicron chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha at ETSU (thus earning him the designation I.O. #1) visited John, me, the chapter, and campus several times a year in those days.
When Anne mentioned a chance to attend the inauguration, but worried about finding a hotel at short notice, I eagerly offered my Uncle Harold's certain hospitality. And I'd drive. I'd navigate her effortlessly on D.C.'s Metro from Uncle Harold's home in Silver Spring to Capital Hill. I could guide her without much thought to Quillen's office in the Cannon House Office Building.
Mapquest, a tool we did not have in 1989, says it is 419 miles from my then-address of Montrose Court, #30, 701 W. Locust St., Johnson City to Uncle Harold's then-address of 708 Gist Ave., Silver Spring, MD — a stone's throw from the District boundary. My cousin, John William, Uncle Harold’s son, also studied at ETSU in the late 80s. He and I made the trip more than once in five hours or less. Not so, Anne and I. We left late on Inauguration eve, in my 1978 Chrysler LeBaron with a nice V-8 engine. We made good time heading up Interstate 81. Until I saw the blue lights begin pursuit at just about Christiansburg, Va.
I don't remember what the speed limit was, but I was surely doing 85 or better. As luck would have it, when I pulled over to the right shoulder, the car began to steam. And steam and steam. By the time the officer was at my window he stated the obvious ... I was having a bit of trouble. Was that why I was going so fast, trying to get to the within-sight-of-us exit? Why, yes, officer. That's it! He stayed with us while the car cooled. We opened the hood and flashed a light inside. Busted fan belt. The officer directed us, then led the way, to the nearest place to seek repairs. I did not get a ticket.
Although our late start and subsequent delay meant we arrived well past 1 a.m., ever-faithful host Uncle Harold had waited up and had a spread of food and beverages to welcome us.
We rose early the next morning and as Anne and I dressed in our inaugural-appropriate attire (the charcoal plaid Henri Grethel trousers and navy double-breasted Bill Blass blazer I wore are in dry cleaning bags in my high-rent storage units), Uncle Harold prepared us a nice breakfast — and something we weren't expecting, nor quite prepared for. An entire pack of wieners. Hot dog wieners. Cooked. Drained. Further dried by having been wrapped in paper towels. As we entered his well-appointed, mahogany-filled dining room we could see him just through the kitchen doorway placing said wieners in a plastic bag.
He explained he'd endured many, many spectacles — including prior presidential inaugurations and parades, Independence Day concerts and fireworks on the National Mall, and other very crowded events - in the 30 year or so he'd been living there. And we would be downtown all day and food wouldn't necessarily be easily accessible, or reasonably priced, and a bag of cooked wieners was a solution he had concocted years ago to help him and his family make it through such events.
"You'll be surprised how much you'll appreciate a couple of these this afternoon," he said, as Anne and I exchanged "What?" glances across the table as we ate our bacon, eggs, croissants and mixed fruit cups.
He drove us to the Metro stop a few blocks from his house and we were on our way. The bag of paper-towel-wrapped wieners? In Anne's purse. We took the Red Line to Union Station and walked south from there, passing the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol on our right and the U.S. Supreme Court and then the Library of Congress on our left, to reach the Cannon House Office Building. Our destination: Quillen's office. Our unknown distraction: the wieners, which we'd forgotten about.
Even back in 1989 to enter the Cannon House Office Building you had to go through security checkpoint. I, carrying nothing, was waved through. They wanted to look in the lady's bag. And out came the bag of wieners. I walked on as if I'd never seen that woman in my life. Anne was not amused. The guards, however, were. I am not sure what happened to the wieners. They weren't confiscated, but I think there was a near scuffle as Anne tried to just leave them there on the guards' table. OK, I might be making that part up. But she did want rid of those wieners.
And as soon as we entered Quillen's office we saw we would not been needing them. A subdued, but impressive, pre-inauguration reception was in full swing. Anne did her job. I grazed on the refreshments and talked with some of the many people I recognized from Kingsport. Soon, Anne and I made our way to the seats Quillen's office provided for us to witness Bush's swearing in on the West Front of the Capitol. We were on the lawn, near, but far below "stage left."
The things that struck me most about George H.W. Bush's inaugural address are clear in my mind today as if not even 28 hours, let alone 28 years have passed: He began with a prayer. He declared "a new breeze" was blowing, and he mentioned his "thousand points of light" concept.
I have looked up transcripts of his whole speech to pull some actual quotes.
"And my first act as President is a prayer. I ask you to bow your heads," and then he offered a prayer to our "Heavenly Father," and immediately, with humility and humbleness offered thanks - these are hallmarks of prayer as I knew it from a childhood listening to my earthly father leading prayer. First, give thanks.
At the heart of his following speech, Bush declared "For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man's heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over."
And then there was his reference to making America a kinder, gentler nation: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world."
Toward the end he called for unity.
"To my friends—and yes, I do mean friends—in the loyal opposition—and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand ... Let us negotiate soon and hard. But in the end, let us produce. The American people await action. They didn't send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan. 'In crucial things, unity'—and this, my friends, is crucial."
All sounds pretty refreshing, doesn't it?