Seven Rules of Inaugural Coverage

"We'll come back and, when we do, the famed artist Peter Max will be with us. Peter was chosen to do the inaugural paintings, and he has done an incredible array of three types. We're going to show them and talk with him, as well. And as we leave in this break, there you see Mr. and Mrs.—President and Mrs. Clinton's first dance as President and first lady, at the Arkansas Ball. This is Larry King live in Washington. How're we doing so far?"

—CNN, January 1993

When a President is inaugurated, a funny thing happens to most media people. They turn soft and gooey. They coo and giggle around politicians—the same politicians whose ankles they were chewing the week before. They make small talk about the most inane things, such as the incredible artistry of Peter Max or the shape of the first lady's hat.

In short, they behave a lot like Larry King.

This is not a bad thing. Larry King is a national asset, and having 10,000 copies of him around for a few days every four years is kind of fun. Since an inaugural is just a ceremony followed by a bunch of parties, with very little at stake, there's no harm in the media briefly lightening up, going positive, trying to think and feel like the regular folk who enjoy such events for their sentimental, patriotic content.

If you study the media's coverage of inaugurals over the past quarter-century, certain principles or rules emerge. It's a safe bet that in covering this year's inaugural, the news gang will more or less follow these simple precepts:

1. Embarrass Yourself. Journalists are naturally skilled at this anyway, but at an inaugural the opportunities for sensationalism, bathos, and other mortifying behaviors really multiply. Most fertile are any little moments that can be pumped up into epochal significance. Thus in 1977, when Jimmy Carter climbed out of his limousine and walked the mile-and-a-half inaugural parade route from the Capitol to the White House, the media agreed that something terribly significant had happened. The course of human history was changing before our eyes! "As he walked along, with Amy prancing, jumping, and dancing along at his side, he was shattering recent presidential practice and legend—the idea that a President must be remote and removed from the people," reported The Washington Post. Of course, there's a straw man in there—that bit about "must be remote and removed"—but never mind. Every inaugural has to shatter an idea or two. It's traditional, and it yields the best excesses.

Sometimes, in order to achieve truly embarrassing results, all a media person need do is share a simple personal observation, as when New York Times columnist James Reston used Ronald Reagan's first inaugural as a measure of the brand-new President's record in office: "So far, like the fireworks, he has been spectacular." Or when Dan Rather, in January 1993, spontaneously reimagined himself as the editor of Vogue: "What a wonderful hat the first lady-to-be has on today."

2. Buy the Symbols. Jimmy Carter and his flacks called it a "People's Inaugural," and that walk down Pennsylvania Avenue gave us all the evidence we needed. "Not since Andrew Jackson summoned all Americans to his oath-taking in 1829 has an inauguration been so open or freewheeling," Newsweek enthused. A dozen years later, when Lee Atwater, an adviser to George H.W. Bush, played blues guitar at one inaugural bash, The New York Times hailed the new Republican "populism." Then Clinton had a blow on a sax, and voila, we had a "rock 'n' roll President" for "a new generation." Using the symbols provided by a President and his promoters is easy, like following a recipe for marshmallow fudge. And the media's inaugural fudge is always tasty.

3. Buy the Paradigm. According to immutable laws of received inaugural wisdom, every Democratic President must be strikingly reminiscent of JFK. It is hard to believe today, but even the early Jimmy Carter—a Southern Baptist peanut farmer full of guilt about lustful thoughts—reminded the media of a patrician rake from Boston. In January 1977, The New York Times made note, in a front-page story, of Kennedy-Carter similarities that had emerged during the inaugural. Just a few weeks after the People's Inaugural, a National Journal article noted the mounting evidence of Carter's "refreshingly informal style" and included this tidbit: "Little Amy Carter's invitation to attend her father's first state dinner was perceived as something of a novelty. However, it was not unusual for Caroline and John-John to appear in the Oval Office while President John F. Kennedy was engaged in official business."

So when Bill Clinton visited Kennedy's grave the day before his swearing-in, and then gave an inaugural speech larded with JFK allusions, we were beside ourselves. Type "Clinton" and "Kennedy" into Nexis for the first four weeks of 1993, and the database will inform you there are just too many stories to retrieve: "Please edit your search and try again." Remember how often the networks ran that footage of young Bill and President Jack shaking hands? It was an image-builder offered up by campaign operatives, but we treated it like a holy cultural relic, an American Shroud of Turin. Look, their hands are touching! My God, the torch was really passed!

The Republican paradigm isn't about a heroic predecessor; it is about money and class. At their inaugurals, incoming Republican Presidents are always surrounded by "tycoons" and "fat cats." In a story of Jan. 21, 1981, The New York Times observed that "Nancy Reagan sweeps from fete to fete in a glistening full-length Maximilian mink," and that the new first lady was being criticized by some "for exercising her opulent tastes in an economy that is inflicting hardship on so many."

Watching the 1989 Bush inaugural, The Boston Globe's David Nyhan wrote: "The crowd that scooped up the 140,000 by-ticket-only admissions, a lot of them, were GOP fat cats, hirers of 1,000 stretch limos, with their private jets lined up at the airports, waiting to whisk the plutocrats down to Miami, where the smoke still blows over riot acreage, in time for today's Super Bowl kickoff." Of course, John Kennedy was the son of a mega-rich tycoon, Jackie spent untold sums on designer clothes, and their friends were mostly other rich people. Big Money swarmed around both Clinton inaugurals, too, and rode limousines around a city full of poverty. But they were Democrats, so the frame was different. And when it comes to inaugurals, so wispy of actual substance, the frame is everything.

4. Behold the Sun. In inaugural coverage, the sun always plays a key supporting role. As in Romantic poetry, it appears at the most dramatic moments and lends the proceedings a quasi-religious air. "The clouds that covered the sky at dawn moved south during the morning, and the winter sun broke through in the inaugural ceremony," reported The New York Times in 1981, while The Washington Post noticed that "the noontime sun splashed down on a spit-shined Washington." Twelve years later, when Bill Clinton was sworn in, The Times coincidentally found "a Capitol that was dressed for the day in gowns of red, white, and blue, and glittered in the January sun." Count on the media to ensure that, for one day at least, every President is a sun king.

5. [Insert Pop Culture Here.] Since the 1970s, when much was made of Jimmy Carter's Southernness, regional references have been losing ground to pop-culture allusions. The Reagan inaugural was the breakthrough moment, because it mattered more that Reagan was a movie star than that he was a Californian. Right after Reagan took his first oath of office, the first person NBC's John Chancellor interviewed on the air, for the meaning of it all, was Jimmy Stewart. The coverage of that inaugural bash was full of older movie stars, such as Bob Hope, Liz Taylor, and Roy Rogers.

But 1981 was only a setup for the first Clinton inaugural, which happened at a time when Boomers were taking over at major media outlets and explaining everything through pop culture. That was the year when Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times noted, in a front-page, hard-news story on the inaugural: "For the first time, America has a President and Vice President younger than the Beatles." It was also the year when, in a single inaugural story in The Times, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich mentioned all of the following: King Lear, Designing Women, Wal-Mart, Dogpatch, When Harry Met Sally, Carrie Fisher, Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Zorro, and Michael Jackson. Clinton's first inaugural also prompted The Washington Post's Tom Shales to close one piece with the sentence, "Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the building."

6. Cover Thyself. Some of the richest, and rarest, inaugural work shows top media people shedding the mask of journalistic distance and behaving more like the insiders they really are. Remember Barbara Walters at the 1997 Clinton festivities, floating like an empress from event to event on the arm of Sen. John Warner? Or that delicious moment in '93 when Larry King said on the air to fellow CNN-er Wolf Blitzer: "Now, anybody who watched the inauguration today and the ceremony saw you. How did you get that seat? That didn't look like the press section." To which Blitzer replied, "It was with all the VIPs...." Unfortunately, such candid glimpses are all-too-infrequent—media people tend to leave themselves out of their own inaugural stories, on the assumption that the public doesn't like to see them hobnobbing. This is a horrible mistake. For millions of Americans, watching Katie or Peter or Brit getting social with top pols is compelling stuff. For a moment, it feels as if the pols almost matter.

7. Stick to Surfaces. Media people are paid to penetrate the superficial and find deeper meanings. This is how we make sense of reality, impose order on chaos. But an inaugural is one of those stories in which the surface is the meaning. When USA Today does a piece comparing Laura Bush's style to Mamie Eisenhower's, as it did this week, smart readers will giggle, but this is what inaugural coverage is all about. We're trying to get a read on the new regime and its ways, because they are the future and we want to know what that future will be like. The problem is that the regime hasn't even taken over yet, so we have very little to work with—gowns and tuxes, menus, entertainment choices, guest lists, and one speech. And we do our best work when we let this surface stuff speak for itself.

A prime example of how this approach can pay off is a 1989 Washington Post Style section piece by reporter Lois Romano, who wrote up a little scene headlined "Receiving the Son." It introduced readers to someone they didn't know very well: "George Bush the son, affectionately known as 'George W.' these days." Watching W at a party, Romano noticed something interesting: "George W. worked the crowd of several hundred as if he were the candidate, with a slap on the back and a 'thank you' for nearly anyone who approached. But wait. Maybe he is the candidate." She asked W if there was any truth to the rumor that he was looking at the Texas governor's race in 1990. " 'I have no idea,' he said, with a wave of the hand, as he disappeared into the maddening mob."