- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009




Following a glittering 1960s White House State Dinner with Leonard Bernstein conducting, the orchestra was several numbers into a Bernstein medley when President John Kennedy summoned military aide Gen. Ted Clifton to his side. JFK’s musical taste ran to less trying music. “Ted, get Mrs. Kennedy to put some cheer into the program,” Clifton recalled Kennedy asking.

That was no small order, even for a Major General with a carpet of ribbons on his chest. Jackie loved Bernstein’s music. Reluctantly, Clifton conveyed the president’s displeasure to the First Lady. Jackie Kennedy smiled. “Okay,” she said, “tell Leonard to play the President’s favorite song, ‘Hail to the Chief.’ He just loves that.” Well, who wouldn’t “just love” having his very own anthem? For most Americans, “Hail to the Chief,” played solely for the president, has become the most familiar, defining emblem of the authority and power of the presidency. It’s a humming tune. The blare of trumpets and the loud, sharp roll of the drums declare: “Pay attention, the president is arriving.” “Hail to the Chief” is what invincibility might sound like, if it could sing.

When tin-voiced, Missouri-twanged Harry Truman suddenly became president in 1945, reporters recalled it was “Hail to the Chief” that strengthened Mr. Truman’s stature at public events. As vice president, Lyndon Johnson was known as an effective parliamentarian with a flare for barnyard humor. The first time he entered the hall to “Hail to the Chief” he seemed taller than his six feet three and glowed in the martial reverence of the music. He was now president, it proclaimed. He took charge. Ronald Reagan, cool in his presidential skin, would actually marchto “Hail to the Chief’s” cadence.

“Hail to the Chief,” written by a Scotsman, James Sanderson, was brought into regular use in the White House by First Lady Sarah Childress Polk, who felt her husband, James, the 11thpresident, wasn’t exactly a Washington or a Jefferson, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier of presidents. Historian William Seale wrote that “Polk, being an unimpressive figure, thought somehow announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed.” From President Polk on, “Hail to the Chief” has been the hailer of choice.

The 2008 election was precedent-setting and the Inaugural will be equally so. “Hail to the Chief” will, for the first time, announce an African-American as president. At noon today, after Barack Obama takes his oath, Marine Band Conductor, Col. Michael Colburn, will raise his baton and President Obama will be heralded with four ruffles and flourishes, followed by “Hail To the Chief” and a 21-gun salute. Neither poetry nor prayers will bring more emotion to this ceremony than the playing of “Hail to the Chief.” It will underscore the unparalleled grandeur of the moment: An African-American president taking the oath at the U.S. Capitol building, whose construction included African-American slave laborers.

From the transformational instant when the drums roll on the Capitol’s West Front, President Obama will be viewed differently then, and for the rest of his life. He will be POTUS, 44thPresident of the United States, the world’s most powerful leader. The majestic sound of “Hail To the Chief” ricocheting off the Capitol’s marble columns will wash away the 2008 campaign’s slings and animosities, replacing them, for now at least, with talk of hope for President Obama’s success over the crises facing the nation. The ceremony culminates nearly two centuries of the equal-rights struggle by thousands of Americans, black and white. It will bea dramatic moment shared by millions worldwide, witnessing the promise of America.

Sid Davis is a former Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief of NBC News and former White House Correspondent for Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. He covered or directed coverage of nine presidents.

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