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A time of ritual, pageantry and history

The inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president, could be one for the ages, political analysts say.

January 18, 2009|Robin Abcarian

The 41st president made it sound so simple. In his agenda on the day he became president in 1989, George H.W. Bush wrote in longhand: "6 a.m. -- catch 3 news shows. Drink Coffee -- Play with grand kids -- Pray -- Go to WHouse -- Go to Cap Hill -- Get Sworn in."

President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural celebration, on the other hand, is going to go on for days. On Saturday, echoing George Washington's ride from Mount Vernon to New York (where the capital was then located), Obama and his family boarded a train in Philadelphia, stopping in Wilmington, Del., to pick up Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his family. The train was to stop in Baltimore before arriving in Washington.

This afternoon, the Obamas and Bidens are to appear on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, welcoming the public to a free concert featuring Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and other top music acts.

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they will engage in an as-yet unspecified act of public service and encourage others to do the same.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Inauguration map: In a graphic on Page 7 of today's special section on Barack Obama's inauguration, a map of the National Mall area gave the wrong location for 1st Street. Also, a label for the White House should have been placed farther to the right.

On Tuesday morning, a record crowd numbering perhaps in the millions is expected to spill across the National Mall as Obama takes his oath on the west steps of the Capitol. Later, at 10 official balls, there will be dancing.

But first there will be joyful weeping, lots of it. And plenty of self-congratulation.

After all, we Americans love to amaze ourselves -- and show the world how amazing we are. What could be more amazing than watching Barack Hussein Obama, our first African American president, swear to faithfully execute his office while resting his hand on the compact Bible used by Abraham Lincoln, who hastened the end of slavery?

"When Obama puts his hand on Lincoln's Bible and swears the same oath that Lincoln swore in an age when full equal opportunity didn't exist, that has to be considered a transcendent historical and emotional moment for the country," said historian Harold Holzer, who co-chairs the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of the 16th president's birth in 1809.

But the layers of meaning will go even deeper. At the new president's side will be his wife, Michelle Robinson Obama (holding the Bible, if she follows a custom begun by Lady Bird Johnson in 1965), whose great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, was a slave in South Carolina.

"We have just never experienced anything like this," said Kenneth Stevens, a history professor at Texas Christian University and an expert on the American presidency. "This was a milestone election, and that feeling is going into the inauguration as well."

We may not have experienced anything exactly like this, but other Americans in other times have had their own transcendent inaugural moments.

According to Jim Bendat's book "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2009," at James A. Garfield's inauguration in 1881, enfranchised former slaves in the crowd wept when the new president said, "The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787."

The Constitution itself is brief on the transfer of presidential power and says nothing about the weeping. When it comes to the inauguration of a president, only one thing is required: The incoming chief executive must take a 35-word oath:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The rest -- the inaugural address, the prayer, the poem, the parade, the emotion -- are all embellishments that fulfill our need for ritual, for pageantry, for national reconciliation and catharsis.

"Although it happens every four years," Holzer said, "it's the closest we get to the rituals of a royal coronation or a papal investiture. There is always a special fascination when it's a brand-new president, one who has not served as vice president or is being reelected. At these moments, there is a kind of zing to the pageantry."

This time around, zing is surely an understatement.

Most inaugural addresses are deeply forgettable rhetorical exercises, and many presage less-than-memorable presidencies.

But phrases from a few addresses, often delivered at a moment of national peril or crisis, have practically embedded themselves in our national DNA -- Lincoln's appeal to our better angels on the eve of the Civil War; Franklin D. Roosevelt's admonition about fear in the depths of the Depression; John F. Kennedy's great call to put country above self.

Those lines, instant classics, had a profound effect on their audiences as well, and helped set the tone of the administrations that followed. Unfortunately, Lincoln could not stop the Civil War, but by his second inaugural speech in 1865, his words -- "with malice toward none" -- would set a much-needed tone of reconciliation for a war-torn nation.

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