It’s history. All Americans should watch at least part of today’s inauguration of our 45th president, Donald John Trump.
It also could be the beginning of a giant, screeching train wreck. Who could turn their eyes from that?
The first inaugural I watched was John F. Kennedy’s in 1961: “Ahsk nawt ...”
This was in the pioneering days of televised political events, and the picture on our black-and-white TV was a shot of the new president, standing hatless at the podium on a frigid, 20-degree January day with newly fallen snow in the background.
I recall seeing an 86-year-old Robert Frost, the most famous poet in America at the time, as he stumbled with an ode he had written for the occasion, finding it hard to read in the glare of the sun. He instead recited another poem from memory.
Marian Anderson sang the national anthem. After the ceremonies, Washington dignitaries and Hollywood elites attended a ball organized by Frank Sinatra and Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford. It lasted until 1:30 a.m.
Jacqueline Kennedy went to bed. The new president went to another ball with his father, Joe. At the time I knew nothing about the late-night parties.
For me, the inauguration, as with most things associated with the American presidency, still bore the staid trappings of a civics lesson on national virtue and patriotism. It was living history lifted from a textbook, untainted by scandal, political divisiveness or angry Tweets.
With continuing scrutiny through the years, much of the sheen has worn off of the Kennedy presidency. Camelot could be a sleazy place.
And if the news media had enjoyed the same access at the time that they do now, and if the Internet and social media had existed in the early ’60s ... Well that sort of speculation is pointless.
Suffice to say, we might have been watching the 1961 inauguration of Richard Nixon instead.
But at the time Kennedy still seemed capable of anything, and his inauguration remains the most memorable for me, probably because it was my first. I can summon up bits and pieces of the others – Jimmy Carter walking back to the White House, Chief Justice John Roberts muffing Barack Obama’s swearing-in – but can’t recall a single line from any of the inaugural addresses except Kennedy’s.
Still, I dutifully tuned in for every one of them.
I suppose I can understand how Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights hero, and the 49 or so other members of Congress boycotting the inauguration find it too discomfiting to attend. They also see it as a valid way to protest.
Lewis contends that Trump is not a legitimately elected president, but the case is flimsy. Besides, I remember violently objecting when the wing-nuts (led by Trump) insisted that Barack Obama couldn’t legitimately be the president because he was born in Africa.
The act of installing Trump, a man so totally unsuited for the job of president of the United States, will, in some ways, be hard to watch. But, as noted, it’s history.
The ceremony also stands as the chief symbol of the nation’s ability to peacefully transfer power to a new leader. That is something we need to respect no matter who is taking the oath of office.
And with Trump, anything can happen. How could you not watch?
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.