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Inauguration Day, Nixon and Me

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In 1972 I was attending American University in Washington DC. My friend Steve scored a pair of tickets to Richard Nixon's second inaugural through his senator, Ted Kennedy so I had the pleasure of attending the outdoor festivities.

It was a mind-numbingly cold day and I wore three layers of sweatshirts and long underwear under ski jacket and jeans. We got to the Capitol early, thinking that seats were first come, first serve. Nope. According to our tickets we were assigned to standing room all the way in the back, on the steps of the Supreme Court building. (This was when the ceremonies did not face the mall.)

We stood there stomping our feet to get some feeling in our toes as the crowd in our section grew, new arrivals making no attempt to mask the total disappointment when they discovered the distant outpost they had been assigned to. Since we all got our tickets from senators, most of us thought we'd be sitting down front. A lot of the die-hard republicans dressed to be seen, not to survive the elements, which made them even more miserable when the wind whipped through their fashionable silks and furs. And those were just the men. (Gotta admit, republicans know how to dress for success.) A few people brought flasks and passed them around and soon we became one happy family of outcasts, feeling no pain and seeing nothing.

Someone lent me their binoculars (No scoreboard-sized TV monitors in those days.) The only person I could make out on the podium was Bob Hope because he was wearing a herringbone hat, which stood out from the others.

Soon the trumpets blared and the announcements were made, introducing the VIP's on the podium as they made their way down the capitol steps to their seats. Since it was so cold, the applause was muffled and just as well because the dignitaries were Spiro Agnew, HR Haldeman, John Mitchell and the rest of the cast of "All The President's Men."

Everyone was asked to rise as the entrance of President Nixon was announced. I could barely make him out as he strode to his seat to the accompaniment of flourishes befitting the Leader of Freedonia. Next came a series of invocations that nobody cared about because we were losing much of the feeling in our legs, and the whisky was taking effect.

Finally it was time for the swearing in. I heard it, but didn't see a thing. The people with the binoculars had stopped sharing. There were some gun and cannon salutes. One of the republican ladies standing nearby was moved to tears not because of the ceremony, but because the cold had caused her to lose control of her tear ducts and the streams had frozen to her cheeks.

Time for the inaugural address. Who cares? Not us. Steve and I looked at each other and decided to bolt so we could try to get a good view of the parade. We ran down Constitution onto Pennsylvania Ave where hordes of people in the portable bleachers sat shivering under blankets and wiping the mucus dripping from their noses.

A few blocks up Pennsylvania, we found an empty space on the curb. Mumbling "Pardon me, Excuse me," we muscled our way into the space for one, causing everyone who had been sitting there for the last six hours to squeeze in even more and the lady at the end of the row to fall onto the street. After ignoring the few choice curses from the squatters, we had our front row seats.

Directly across the street from us was a large anti war demonstration. Vietnamese flags waving and bullhorns blaring. A large contingent of DC cops were standing between the demonstrators and the street, blocking the view of the people who had chosen that spot to watch the parade. On our side there was a lot of anti "Hippie" talk and cursing. At one point some of the yahoos in our section broke into an impromptu chorus of "God Bless America," which caused the demonstrators to yell even louder. What the hell, it was much more interesting than listening to Nixon's inaugural speech on transistor radios.

After hours of glancing down Pennsylvania Ave. for any flicker of life, the parade began. A motorcycle drove by, red and blue lights flashing, with an occasional blurt of its siren. Then came another. And another. And another. Now if you've never seen a presidential motorcade, it is something to behold. Completely psyches you out. After the first few motorcycles go by, suddenly a phalanx of motorcycles appear, all flashing red and blue lights. A second group of motorcycles arrive and park themselves on either side of the street. Then come the limos. A small dribble at first, then a few more, then the full motorcade. You start looking in the windows of the passing cars to catch a glimpse of the President, but see nothing. Red and Blue lights are flashing in all directions and sirens blare from everywhere shocking your senses. The anticipation of the crowd rises to a fever pitch and suddenly there he is. Nixon. The President of the United States in the flesh. He was standing through the open sunroof of his limo, giving his ionic two-fingered salute with both hands.

Because of the demonstration across the street, Nixon turned his back on them and faced us. I was maybe fifteen feet away as he looked right at Steve and me, smiled and gave us the two-finger salute. With our already drunken senses on overload, the sirens wailing, lights flashing and the eyes of the most powerful man on the planet's eyes locked on us (Or so it seemed) what else could we do but meekly wave back. And just like that he was gone, heading toward the White House and the Presidential reviewing stand.

Still dazed, Steve and I looked at each other and decided to leave. No way we were going to sit on that frozen curb for two more hours watching Shriners from every state zoom around in their little cars while Aryan young republicans rode on floats celebrating the defeat of George McGovern and the consolidation of power into the hands of the mega-rich.

We got back to the dorm a few hours later. No inaugural balls for us (In fact the only person on our floor who was invited to a Ball was an Iranian exchange student who was a distant relative of the Shah. Go figure.) Two years later Nixon resigned from office in disgrace. But I was there to see him sworn in. Glad I went. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Stu Kreisman is the author of Dick Cheney's Diary available here, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.