High spirits and cloudless sky recall Truman's day without show of arms Rites don't change but dress codes do

January 21, 1993|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The day was chill but bright. The sky was cloudless. Television ensured that the inauguration would be seen by the largest number of people ever to watch a single event.

The country was full of hope. But it also knew that a foreign crisis would return to the front burner when the day's ceremonies were over.

That may sound like yesterday. But it was Jan. 20, 1949, and Harry S. Truman was taking the oath after his upset victory the previous November.

Much is the same with these quadrennial celebrations -- the solemn rites at the Capitol, the precision as well as fun, hilarity and mishaps of the parade to the White House.

Could anyone who saw it forget the cowboy who stopped his horse before the presidential reviewing stand and lassoed Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953? Or the fellow war survivors of PT-109 saluting John F. Kennedy from their torpedo boat replica in the 1961 parade?

But yesterday's inaugural and parade for Bill Clinton also put the other bookend on the Cold War era, the first put there by Truman, in whose presidency it began. Mr. Clinton's parade was as everlastingly long as they all are, but it was not predominantly an expression of military might, as so many before it had been.

When Truman was inaugurated 44 years ago, as biographer David McCullough recalls in "Truman," 700 military aircraft including some gigantic B-36 bombers flew overhead as the president prepared to ride to the White House in an open Lincoln. It was dark long before the seven-mile parade ended.

Thanks to his predecessors, Mr. Clinton could hail the defeat of fascism and communism and call the world "more free." But it was also "less stable" in the Cold War aftermath, he added.

The new president had a dictator to face down -- Saddam Hussein. The man from Missouri 44 years ago was facing down a dictator, Josef Stalin, who had blockaded Berlin but soon had to stop because of the airlift Truman ordered.

Truman began his Jan. 20 at 6:45 a.m., driving to the Mayflower Hotel for a ham-and-grits breakfast with fellow World War I veterans of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery. When he left them, Mr. McCullough recalls, he told them he "didn't give a damn what they did after one o'clock that afternoon . . . but until then they were to stay sober," so that they could march as his honor guard in the parade -- which they did.

There were plenty of marching military units and bands yesterday as in earlier inaugurations. But in Truman's parade, and more so in Eisenhower's and thereafter, there were also streams of armored vehicles and other military equipment.

In time, big ballistic and cruise missiles made their appearance. In 1953, the Army showed Eisenhower its first atomic gun, a 280mm affair that could barely make the turn from 15th Street into Pennsylvania Avenue.

Truman's was the first televised inauguration. It was Mr. McCullough who estimated that never before had so many seen a single event. And how many was that? Probably 10 million in 14 cities connected by cable and extending as far as St. Louis.

There was a brief interval on that Jan. 20 when the country was nominally without a president. Truman had succeeded to the office when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945. His inauguration ceremony in 1949 ran late and, instead of the high noon specified in the Constitution, it was 1:30 p.m. by the time he had taken the oath and started his speech.

Unlike most presidents-elect in modern times, Eisenhower had his entire Cabinet named and assembled, all hands, at the Commodore Hotel in New York for a two-day skull session Jan. 11-12, 1953.

They went over a draft of his inaugural speech and took up a pair of weighty decisions, one long-lasting, the other honored in the breach.

First, they decided not to wear top hats on Jan. 20, ending a historic tradition and supposedly annoying the Truman White House where, it was thought, sartorial matters should be settled. Dark homburgs were settled on. Top hats reappeared only once, for Mr. Kennedy's inauguration.

Next, Eisenhower delivered an appeal in behalf of marchers and those who watched parades. The thing had to get started promptly when Capitol Hill ceremonies ended and be over in daylight. As a soldier marcher, he had had to stomp about in the cold waiting for officialdom to eat lunch in the Capitol.

"Let me tell you something," biographer Robert J. Donovan quoted him in "Eisenhower" as saying. "You put all those people there all day long, standing in the cold, and finally they march past the reviewing stand when darkness has hit us . . . we ought to get them past in daylight hours if we possibly could."

Not often was the former five-star general of the Army thwarted. But it sure wasn't possible to get them past in daylight, or before 7 p.m.

If memory serves, even the lassoing didn't happen until dusk.

Mr. Corddry of The Sun's Washington Bureau covered his first inauguration 44 years ago.

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