Presidential historian Barry H. Landau reflects upon thirteen consecutive inaugurations spent elbow-to-elbow with legends of stage, screen, and politics
Sarah Vaughn and I were sitting at a table in the Rainbow Room, 65 floors above Manhattan, listening as Ella Fitzgerald received an award; the only eavesdroppers were the galaxy of stars as we looked out onto the Empire State building. It was 1985. Ronald Reagan had just been reelected and Frank Sinatra had been asked once again to produce the Inaugural Gala. We were gossiping about whom he would invite to perform and were both pleased that our friend Ray Charles had been chosen as one of the headliners. In a whisper, “Sassy” (Vaughn’s nickname) told me of performing for Lyndon B. Johnson, and becoming so overwhelmed that she began crying uncontrollably after her performance. She recalled that just a couple of years earlier she couldn’t even get a hotel room in Washington, and then, she not only performed for the president, but he asked her to dance. One can only imagine her joy if she were here to see Barack Obama sworn-in on January 20th.
Sinatra was one of the few performers favored and sought after by both Democrats and Republicans. While I originally met him through the Kennedys as a young boy, we re-connected years later through our mutual passion for politics.
In 1961, Sinatra produced the iconic gala for President Kennedy’s inauguration, which was the first I attended (at age 13). I was wide-eyed as I watched the legendary names coming and going in snow-covered Washington. At one point I found myself face-to-face with screen legend Bette Davis bellowing in her distinctive New England accent. Forced to abandon her vehicle, she requisitioned me to assist her through the snow. As I helped her maneuver to the inaugural platform, we passed Washington’s grandes dames: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Edith Wilson, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Standing in front of us were Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier, with whom I would attend many inaugurations over the next four decades.
By 1985, Sinatra had become a Republican and it’s from Reagan’s second inauguration that I have one of my fondest memories. I was attending a gala rehearsal when Sinatra remarked that he was tired of fancy food. What he really craved were a dozen White Castle hamburgers. I told him I knew a place we could go called The Little Tavern in Georgetown (now called Paolo’s) with similar style burgers. His face lit up like a little boy’s, and I quickly solicited the assistance of two motorcycle policemen, who had us jump into their sidecars for a ride through closed-off Pennsylvania Avenue until we reached Wisconsin Avenue and N Street N.W.
I remember with great nostalgia that during this same inauguration, Sinatra, impressionist Rich Little, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Selleck, Robert Wagner, and I decided to make a “crank call” to Bette Davis, with Little pretending to be Jimmy Stewart. We were all friends with Davis and thought it would be hysterical. Bette was not amused. (She had actually threatened to leave the country if Reagan were elected.) Later, at the White House reception, Sinatra and the Hollywood gang couldn’t wait to tell the real Jimmy Stewart and President Reagan about our prank. Reagan insisted on telephoning Davis to set the record straight. I gave him her number, as we gathered around the Usher’s office to listen in. “Hello Bette, this is Ron Reagan, I wish you were here …” to which she replied “f-you” and hung up, thinking it was Little telephoning back in yet another of his voices.
By 1993, we were all celebrating Bill Clinton’s inauguration. This time I was actually sitting in the Presidential Box, accompanied by Belafonte, Poitier and their wives. I was now considered a presidential historian, and was regaling them with the story of how Abraham Lincoln had to slip through the ladies’ entrance of the Willard Hotel to foil an assassination plot. The president-elect, disguised in a woman’s cape and hat, was safely ensconced in his second floor suite when he wired his wife the message confirming his safe arrival: “Plums delivered nuts safely.”
How prophetic that the festivities surrounding the inauguration of Barack Obama will be in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It was a war-fatigued Lincoln, who stood at the East Front of the Capitol to deliver the final words of his inaugural address: “With malice toward none … with charity for all … achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”
With the completion of his inaugural ceremony, the Obamas’ young daughters will climb into the backseat of the official limousine and join their parents as they return to the White House, not very different from when Tad Lincoln jumped into his father’s carriage 144 years ago. In our turbulent world, it is reassuring to know that Obama will recite the same oath of office spoken by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. God Bless America and our nation’s new president.
Presidential historian and author, Barry H. Landau, excerpts above from his forthcoming book, “The President’s Inauguration” copyright © 2008.