Attending an inauguration isn’t about remembering what the president happened to say. Unlike the State of the Union address, which sets the president’s agenda for the year, an inauguration is less about the country’s problems and more about balls, parades, flags, machine guns atop buildings and — most important — gold-embossed souvenir invitations.
That’s the perception of two Columbia residents who sat down Monday to reminisce about their experiences at two inaugurations 32 years apart. They were more inspired by the opportunity to rub elbows with the likes of Don King and Colonel Sanders than by anything Presidents Richard Nixon or George W. Bush said.
E. Hirst Mendenhall, 85, attended Nixon’s second inaugural on Jan. 20, 1973. Another Columbia resident, Russ Duker, 44, recently returned from attending his second Bush inauguration. They reflected Monday on what impressed them about an American tradition that comes only once every four years.
“From the first one four years ago, the only thing I can remember is that Franklin Graham prayed,” Duker said of Bush’s first inauguration. That’s the only thing I remember, that he took over Billy Graham’s job. You’d think I’d remember more of the speech, but I don’t remember the president’s speech at all.”
For Mendenhall, who clearly recalls how frigid it was on Nixon’s Inauguration Day, nothing about Nixon’s withdrawal of troops from Vietnam or peace in Southeast Asia rings a bell.
“I don’t remember any reference in his inaugural speech to anything about the war in Vietnam,” he said, adding that protesters made their presence known. “That griped me, but particularly because I had a son who was a Green Beret in Vietnam.”
Memories of the inaugural balls seemed to rekindle the most stories for the two men.
“I got to meet, uh — his name’s escaping me now — the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, shake his hand, say ‘hi, hello.’ That was pretty interesting,” said Duker, who added, “Who’s the boxer with the hair that sticks up — is that his name — Don King? He was there at the Texas-Wyoming Ball. I heard he was a huge supporter of Bush.”
Mendenhall remembers how his son Tommy eagerly ran after autographs during the ball.
“They had the millionaire Kentucky colonel, the KFC founder, Colonel Sanders, and he always wears his white suit, and the suit on the lapel had gold chicken legs, and my son just had to go over and get his autograph,” Mendenhall said. “We were in the last ball for the president and his party; Eisenhower and the others all coming in to attend the ball. Supposedly, that was the best of the balls.”
These stories reflect little of the gravity contained in the two presidents’ inaugural speeches. Both spoke during a time of sharp divisions in the country and while America was in the throes of a foreign war.
Nixon spoke of the postwar era. “Because of America’s bold initiatives, 1972 will be long remembered as the year of the greatest progress since the end of World War II toward a lasting peace in the world,” he said.
Bush spoke of America’s duty amid the continued insurgent battle in Iraq and on the verge of Iraqi elections.
“So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” he said.
Both presidents emphasized the United States’ duty to help others attain freedom on their own.
Duker was struck by one particular theme taken from the second Bush speech, that of “fighting fire with fire.”
“He’s fighting these political ideas with the political idea that individuals can have a vote, and they can be free, and they can choose their own direction, and the ideas that have succeeded in stabilizing our government,” Duker said.
Only a few minutes of the hour-long conversation between Duker and Mendenhall touched on political ideas and foreign policy. It seemed the occasion of the inauguration to them was a suspension of the problems of the world, when the president and the American people could celebrate the continuation of American democracy.
For Duker and his family, the celebration was also a culmination of their own work.
“We went door-to-door, we made thousands of phone calls — this time was more of a celebration of the participation that was such an overwhelming success,” he said.
“It’s the mixture of a public and private celebration: the inauguration, it’s ceremonial.”
Perhaps the United States celebrates Inauguration Day so extravagantly because it’s a symbol of our democracy’s stability. Mendenhall, however, took from Nixon’s day something less profound.
“I’m sure you got one, too,” he said to Duker, “a beautiful gold invitation to the inauguration: ‘George W. Bush.’ It’s a collector’s item. I meant to bring mine, and it’s in here somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.”