- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

George Washington's ride from Mount Vernon to his inauguration at New York City's Federal Hall in 1789 was slowed as militiamen along the way joined his ranks to show solidarity with the nation's first president-elect.

The U.S. armed forces, in one form or another, have been part of presidential inaugurations ever since. It will be no different Jan. 20, when George W. Bush succeeds Bill Clinton to become the 43rd president.

Modern inaugural ceremonies boast military bands, color guards and a service contingent more than 5,000 strong to both herald and ease the transition from one commander in chief to the next.

It's a nonpartisan display of support for the new leader, a process as dignified as the recent election imbroglio was chaotic.

"It's a piece of history. It represents our country and democracy," says Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, 51, chairman of the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee (AFIC).

Gen. Jackson, whose committee oversees all of the military's inaugural duties, promises that Inauguration Day for Mr. Bush will feature no significant changes at least where the armed forces are concerned. With dangling chads and "count every vote" mantras still fresh in mind, consistency may be just what the electorate ordered.

Though the election's protracted epilogue stalled formation of the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC), the AFIC has been operational since last January with a small core of service members.

Current AFIC staffers, who number around 700, inherited footlockers full of information on previous inaugurations, Gen. Jackson says.

The military-inflected duties are "the right way to honor the commander in chief … and participate in a transition of government," says Brig. Gen. Elbert N. Perkins, AFIC deputy chairman. "For us, it's a change of command."

Gen. Perkins, 52, an amiable officer who measures his words, says his staffers had their own anxieties when the election didn't end Nov. 7 as expected. A few matters such as deciding which military units would march in the inaugural parade needed direct input from the program-planning PIC, which can't be formed until there is a president-elect.

Mr. Bush eventually named PIC members, and "the units were notified before Christmas, [which was] our initial goal," Gen. Perkins adds, relief etched in his comments.

Making communication easier between the two committees is the fact that they are housed in the same building at 600 Independence Ave. SW. The site, which features furniture assembled from other military operations, is providing a command center for inaugural preparations and festivities.

Some of the office space offers sumptuous views of the Capitol, as much inspiration as any government employee could need. That prime real estate can't guarantee all will go well come inaugural weekend, though.

Floats can break down, arrival schedules can dissolve into disarray even some nonmilitary attendees can affect plans.

"What are you going to do when [mounted officers'] horses don't want to go where you want them to go?" Gen. Jackson asks with an unaffected shrug.

Unlike at some recent inaugurals, vociferous protest this time is a genuine possibility. Anti-establishment activists and those protesting the certified election results, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have pledged to make their voices heard throughout the four-day celebration.

The Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies will handle related contingencies, the AFIC assures. The only time military forces played an active security role was for Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, during the Civil War.

Gen. Jackson chooses not to divulge whether he believes Inauguration Day is an appropriate stage for such protests.

"As long as they follow the rules," he says in his warm baritone, "I'm ambivalent. They can do what they want."

Asked to elaborate, he adds, "I'll leave that to someone else to decide."

It's a tone no defense attorney could parse.

The military's inaugural presence wasn't always so pronounced, notes presidential historian Tim Blessing, chairman of the history department at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa.

For about half of the nation's 42 chief executives since Washington, the role of the military has been thin. "We barely had an Army for most of the 19th century," Mr. Blessing says.

Even now, participation by the armed forces is modest, especially when compared with that of countries such as Russia and England.

"Five thousand is not a lot of troops for a commander in chief," the historian says of the number fielded by the AFIC for inaugural events.

Military involvement increased radically for Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural procession in 1941 as war raged in Europe, Mr. Blessing says, and has remained relatively high by U.S. standards ever since.

The AFIC, created in the 1950s, also coordinates medical services and provides a week of training for drivers unfamiliar with the District's tricky thoroughfares. The committee orchestrates some of the musical accompaniment for the festivities, supplying about 500 musicians from the armed services.

The Marine Band played at Thomas Jefferson's inauguration in 1801 and has performed in every inaugural ceremony since.

All service bands will provide patriotic music for Mr. Bush's inauguration. Members of the Army Herald Trumpets, for example, will scramble to show up ahead of him and trumpet his arrival at every stop.

By the time Inauguration Day rolls around, the AFIC already will be disbanding, a process that concludes by the end of March.

Gen. Jackson, who also serves as commanding general of the Army's Military District of Washington, will be the new president's first official contact with the armed forces. He will instruct Mr. Bush on ceremonial duties once the new president descends from the Capitol steps after being sworn in.

The privilege isn't lost on the general.

"Tell me an American who wouldn't want to stand next to his president and tell him what's going on," he says, unable to contain a subtle grin. "It's a great honor."


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