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Gabrielle Burton Headshot

Inauguration Second Time Around--Sort of

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Our blood is thin from California living, and my husband, Roger, had a broken arm, but we braved the cold and the crowds and went to the Inauguration. We stood on the mall with two million other joyful people and were glad we didn't need a restroom quickly.
It was our second time around--sort of. In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was elected President by mandate, we lived in Bethesda, MD. and I, a young suburban wife and mother, desperately wanted to go to the Inaugural Ball. Not because I cared for President Johnson; he was totally incidental to the glamour I yearned for.
Roger asked everyone he knew and one day came home waving a pair of prized Inaugural Ball tickets. My excitement fizzled fast: They cost $100.00 apiece! My thrifty nature, even my ethics, would never allow me to spend that kind of money on a ball.
But I still was dying to go. One day I read in the Washington Post that, to expedite traffic, suburbanites going to the Balls could park their cars and ride special buses into DC. And an idea grew. On January 20, 1965, I went to the beauty salon, had my hair done in a chignon, put on my wedding dress, which, minus the train, was a beautiful beaded sheath; and Roger, a musician, put on his work tuxedo. We kissed our babies goodbye, drove our Peugeot to the designated spot, and joined a cluster of other couples in formal dress. "They're going to find us out, they're going..." I said the entire bus ride downtown. "Yes, they will," Roger said, "if you keep talking so loud."
There were 3 or 4 balls that year, the President expected to make an appearance at each. We got off the bus at the Shoreham Hotel, site of the fanciest, swept into the lobby and staked out a central sofa.
All evening we sat on the sofa and watched the crowd; now and then we strolled around the lobby. Once I went into the Ladies Room where an elegant silver haired woman said, "I love your dress. Isn't it terrible in there? It's such a crush, you can't see anything." I smiled in commiseration, wondering if she was someone famous, maybe an ambassador's wife. After several thrilling hours, we ducked out a side entrance Roger knew from playing dance jobs there. And suddenly, walking up the driveway to that entrance was Lyndon Johnson. He, several secret service agents, Roger and I were the only people in the shadowy driveway. And, to my great surprise, I began clapping. I wasn't looking at a huge hulking 6'3" cowboy who paled next to the Kennedy Camelot myth. In the aura of office, Johnson was nine feet tall. He was the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. He smiled and nodded at us and vanished inside to a muffled Hail to the Chief.
We hopped on the bus to Bethesda, drove to the IHOP and, giddy in our fancy clothes, ate waffles, strawberries and ice cream.
Four years later on Inaugural Day, we watched a haggard haunted Lyndon Johnson on television standing next to Richard Nixon being sworn in. Although I never shouted, "Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" I had vociferously protested the Vietnam War and Johnson, inextricably linked, but now the ceremony, all that had preceded it and what it presaged, and Johnson seemed profoundly sad. "He's like a Greek tragic hero," I said. "He could have been one of the greatest presidents in history, and he blew it with Vietnam hubris." The TV announcer said that a motorcade was taking Johnson to the home of his friend and former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford. We didn't know Clifford, but knew he lived two blocks from us. "We have to go over there," I said. "This has to be a terrible day for him." We bundled up the kids and walked over. A lot of other people had the same idea.
We stood with our two toddlers in their yard, the baby in my arms, watching reporters trample Mrs. Clifford's prize azaleas. "He's coming!" buzzed through the crowd. A TV cameraman careened backwards up the sidewalk, shooting Johnson as he approached. "Watch out for that baby!" Johnson shouted. His hands on my shoulders, he looked into my eyes, and said, "Are you okay, Ma'am?" "Yes, Mr. President," I said.
So by fluke I saw Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president, close-up not on that first bloody day he took office but on his first elected day as President, and on his last day as President.
A lot of raised and thwarted hopes, angers, and despair cloaked as cynicism have passed since then. In 1972, I ran as a delegate for Shirley Chisholm for president, and worked for her at the convention in Miami. "Do I have enough votes to...?" she asked her chief assistant, Helen Butler. "Shirley," Helen said quietly, "you don't have enough votes to be elected dogcatcher of Miami Beach." It sounds like a funny remark, but it wasn't. She had 152 votes--28 she won; Hubert Humphrey released his 124 black delegates to her--and we had to beg McGovern workers for seats in the hall. This time around, I was for Hillary in the primaries, and still plan to see a woman in the White House in my lifetime. Secret service agents wield automatic rifles now--nobody will get as close to any president as I did to Johnson twice. My wedding dress with its train hooked on has been worn three more times by my daughters. Even if the dress still fit me, my appetite for glamour and celebrity and Inaugural Balls has long since diminished. But I packed my long underwear and flew cross-country to the Inauguration, though I knew I'd be watching it with less comfort and visibility than if we'd stayed home. You can see it or be there, someone said, and without hesitation we chose the latter.
In the late 60's and early 70's, before Cambodia and Kent State and Watergate eroded trust, there was a flash in time when it seemed as if the women's liberation movement, the civil rights movement, the anti war movement, gay liberation, free speech, the sexual revolution, and the ecological movement had coalesced into one giant movement, its spirit tremendous excitement, deep hope, and an unlimited sense of possibility. Those of us lucky enough to be involved in politics then knew, as we marched shoulder to shoulder down Pennsylvania Avenue past all the great monuments to freedom, held our children up to put lighted candles on the White House fence, that we were part of history as it was happening. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama made history on top of all that other known and unknown history and, for the moment, there is again a spirit of possibility. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.