Like rekindled romances, presidential inaugurations are rarely much fun the second time around. Been there, done that, the bloom is off the rose, familiarity breeds boredom, et al. Barack Obama can't believe that deja vu comes even unto him.
Four years ago, the nation's capital was electric with excitement, the airports and Union Station abuzz with the noise of arriving political thrill-seekers, many of them in Washington for the first time. Nobody could find a hotel room, and some residents with grand-enough houses rented them to high rollers for big-enough bucks.
This time, not so much. The gaiety, what there is of it, is forced, like the gaiety of Christmas dinner at the home of your mother-in-law.
The president is trying manfully to manufacture a few cheap thrills. He recruited eight people who have had nice things to say about him, and he's bringing them to town so they can say them again and ride on a float down Pennsylvania Avenue. One is a Detroit auto worker, another is a gay pilot in training, still another is a woman with a brain tumor who, by the president's telling, has been saved by Obamacare. Organizers are said to be scouring orphanages to scare up a few more children to use as presidential backdrops.
Four years ago, celebrity entertainers were bumping each other out of the way to sing, dance or crack jokes. "Anybody who could croak a note was looking for a microphone," recalls one organizer of 2009.
Nobody goes to an inaugural ball to dance, and a good thing, because there aren't nearly as many balls this year, and everything is definitely B-list. So is most of the entertainment. One ball will be entertained by something called the Goo Goo Dolls. No Aretha Franklin or Jon Bon Jovi this time.
The crowds will be smaller, too. Nearly 2 million men, women and children jammed the Mall four years ago. Organizers are expecting less than half that this time. More than that, and a lot of folks will be squirming from one foot to the other, because this year they ordered only 1,500 Porta-Potties, down from 7,000 four years ago.
President Obama may try to electrify the crowd, or at least bump up the wattage a little, with his eloquence. He must keep in mind what happened to William Henry Harrison in 1841. Arriving on horseback, having ridden from his rooming house in a steady rain with neither hat nor coat, Harrison proceeded to speak for more than two hours. He came down with a cold three weeks later, not likely because of his speech in the rain, but his death-by-bloviation, according to one of the most popular inauguration legends.
More likely he was killed by his doctors. His cold quickly worsened, and became pneumonia and pleurisy. He couldn't rest because the White House was being noisily plundered by office-seekers. His doctors applied several "cures," using opium, castor oil, leeches and snakeweed. On April 4, 1841, he called in his vice president, John Tyler, to hear his last words, which would shame the Obama White House: "Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more." He had nothing else to say, and promptly died.
No danger of any of that now. The president and the first lady will ride to the Capitol in bulletproof splendor, and if it rains, there will be someone to hold two umbrellas over him. He can talk as long as he likes; there's no one with a hook for a president even if he goes on too long. But some things don't change.
Tip O'Neill, the now-deceased longtime speaker of the House, recalled sitting next to one George Kara, a wealthy fat cat but otherwise obscure Boston businessman at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Kara nudged the speaker and said, "You know, one day historians will look at the photographs of this and wonder how I got such a good seat." O'Neill saw the new president that night at a ball at the Mayflower Hotel, and told him of Kara's remark. The president grinned and replied: "Tip, you'll never believe it. I had my left hand on the Bible and my right hand in the air, and I was about to take the oath of office, and I said to myself, 'How the hell did Kara get that seat?'"
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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