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Inaugural 1969: Headlights, Please!

The city was still smoldering, the war continuing with no end in sight. King and Kennedy were dead. Richard Nixon's inauguration in January, 1969, was anything but the celebration Washington is about to launch. Still, the peaceful transfer of power held a certain innate majesty and excitement, and among the swearing-in, the parade and the six inaugural balls, the District was abuzz that week.

The city expected a whopping 50,000 visitors. On NBC, the Inauguration night coverage was anchored by Hugh Downs, Joe Garagiola and Nancy Dickerson (is that fabulous, or what?) And a Washington Post story by the great gossip reporter Maxine Cheshire noted that there had been a run on mink bow ties.

But in reviewing coverage of that Inauguration, here's what got me: The Post's reporting on the logistics--the traffic, security, ticketing, and closings related to the Inauguration--consisted of a single piece no longer than this blog post. And that story revealed just how far we've come (descended?):

The '69 swearing-in was the first at which special invitations were required if you wanted to go right up to the stage on the grounds of the Capitol. There were as yet hardly any restrictions on driving, use of the Potomac River bridges or wandering by foot through the federal core--and this is before the construction of the Metro system.

There were some limitations on downtown parking, but only on Inauguration Day itself. Even then--and isn't this the cutest?--if you were driving in to park in a lot, all you had to do to get past the police was to turn on your headlights when you were within one block of your parking lot of choice.

Obviously, the Obama moment has a special historic significance and appeal, so the crowds will be large. But leaving aside the matter of the first black president and his extraordinary personal popularity, inaugurations have morphed from the rather quaint affair this riot-torn city hosted in 1969 to a national security event.

Terrorism and home-grown protest rioting are of course different, but the fact is that there was not a word in the 1969 coverage about any need for extra security--no sense that anxieties about civil disturbance should be permitted to hijack the ceremonies or celebration. There was an expectation, rather, that people would behave appropriately, and that the authorities would do their jobs as best they could, without taking over the events. We could stand to think a bit about that attitude and ask ourselves: At what point does security stop providing comfort and assurance and start altering our view of ourselves?

The map that accompanied the Post's 1969 story on inaugural logistics. (Joseph P. Mastrangelo - Washington Post)

By Marc Fisher |  January 16, 2009; 8:13 AM ET
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Thanks for taking me back, Marc. I marched in that parade as a member of the U.S. Corps of Cadets. A long train ride, a couple hours of numbing cold, marching but not being able to turn my head to actually see the President, and back on the train. It was an honor to be a part of it, and I still have the certificate that shows that I marched.

Posted by: phil93 | January 16, 2009 8:41 AM

And then one day 19 clean-cut, educated young men from overseas hijacked 4 airplanes full of innocent civilians and crashed them into some of the largest buildings mankind has ever constructed, killing themselves and nearly 3,000 fellow human beings in the process. And their comrades rejoiced.

That changes the threat calculus, to put it mildly. Let's not get carried away with nostalgia.

Posted by: simpleton1 | January 16, 2009 7:55 PM

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