As our nation’s ruling class makes its way, harum-scarum, towards a January 6 codification vote of the Electoral College, another group of people are working long hours, busy as beavers, to prepare for the 59th presidential inauguration 14 days later.
I have been regularly watching the transformation of the exterior of the U.S. Capitol into a potential viewing stand for the inauguration itself, and to that part of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House where large viewing stands are being temporarily built for the traditional presidential parade later that same day.
I have had the good fortune and honor to attend six presidential inaugurations, all of them held on the West Front of the Capitol, and all of them offering the most amazing vista down the national mall — a vantage-view that ends with the faintest figure of a seated Abraham Lincoln in his majestic and famed marble temple.
Each of the inaugurations I have attended have been bone-chillingly cold; some damper than others; and some with spitting ice or light snow.
One inaugural I did not attend but is still much-discussed by Washingtonians of that era who did was the January 20, 1961 inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. JFK’s ascension to our nation’s highest office was preceded by one of the most powerful and memorable nor’easter winter storms ever to lash our nation’s capital for a presidential swearing-in. It is worth taking a trip down memory lane about that day, but first a bit of background.
In 1937, inaugurations were officially moved from March to January. It had been decided that the interregnum period between a November election and a March inaugural was too long of a time-span, and with that decision came the increased likelihood of possible ice and snow because Washington is known for its frigid Januarys.
The folks in the second Reagan administration learned that reality the hard way in 1985. It was so bitterly cold in Washington on Reagan’s inauguration day that the entire outdoor inaugural events were canceled, and the swearing-in was moved into the Capitol Rotunda; it was a poignant moment in presidential history. The California-Reagans favored warmth over wind-chill lashes.
Not so, though, in 1961. The day before the Kennedy inaugural, the snow and ice mixture forecast turned into 8 inches of blowing and drifting snow, and because Washington DC remains – believe it or not – a still-southern city in many ways, the city did not have the capacity to immediately address what became old man winter’s biting reality.
The storm, which had formed in the Tennessee Valley and gained unbelievable strength in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, roared into Washington with brute strength.
In fact, most government employees were sent home early that day; even so, Washington rapidly became a tangled traffic mess, as did the highway system flowing into and out of the city. Some motorists were stranded in their futile attempts to get home; others simply abandoned their cars on the side of the roads. A report in The Washington Post said nearly 600 cars were either stranded or abandoned on the George Washington Parkway, the Rock Creek Parkway, and on Pennsylvania Avenue itself.
The city’s only airport, now known as Ronald Reagan-National Airport, suffered a total whiteout, preventing former president Herbert Hoover from attending the Kennedy inauguration.
The Kennedys themselves had to navigate the contrails of the storm, giving up on dinner plans all together, and simply popping in and out of the evening festivities, in ad-lib style, as the snow continued to fall and blanket the city. They ended up at a late-night Georgetown inauguration party amid a white-stormed milieu too beautiful for words. But earlier in the day, the hurdles remained.
The Army Corps of Engineers were brought in to design and execute a plan for major snow removal, which they did with welcomed precision, but they had to navigate around abandoned cars, stranded motorists, and the usual hub-bub that an inauguration brings to Washington. It all became an ice-and-snow-caked rabbit warren of wintry gloaming.
One of the greatest challenges was clearing the presidential parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue; more than a thousand city government employees were deployed with the task of shoveling the snow to clear the way. The task was so large that even flame-throwers were used to melt the snow and ice to make a passage. By the time the parade began, the route had been cleared — no-doubt resulting in many sore backs and legs.
It had all been a storm for the ages, worthy of a New England Norman Rockwell painting or Robert Frost poem, replete with nostril-breaths from horses which were part of the parade and stomping in the snowdrifts.
At Noon, the new president, the youngest since Theodore Roosevelt, took the oath of office, reassuring the nation and world that a torch had been passed to a new generation of leadership, all the while affirming a proposition that the question was not what the country could do for its citizens but instead what they could do for their country. Amid JFK’s stirring words, a northwest wind continued to blow — so fierce it felt like seven degrees above zero.
Kennedy himself chose not to wear a top coat or a top hat for the speech even though he proudly wore both earlier and later in the day. He was, after all, a child of New England winters.
The prayer which preceded Kennedy’s inauguration speech lasted so long it nearly equaled the length of the new president’s entire remarks. Kennedy himself waited stoically in the chill till the Cardinal had finished his amen.
1961 was one brutal winter. In Washington, the thermometer never rose above 40 degrees till early February, and the city received 21 inches of additional snow until that time.
Sixty winters later, another inauguration will soon be upon us with chills and gusts of another, more polarizing kind. Despite the elements, our great nation endures as we prepare to step off into a new year.
The psalmist reminds and reassures us: “You crown the year with Your goodness.” Yea, Lord, and may it be so.
Photo from Wikipedia