A final word on the recent inauguration – something no one noticed, and everyone should. Back and forth flew media commentary on the president’s speech content, tone and tempo, timing of rain, numbers on the Mall, meaning of this and that, historical tidbits, vocal protesters and leftovers of a vigorous campaign. Missed was the elephant in the room. Inaugurations do not just “happen.”
This inauguration was a technical triumph – start to finish. And it might have been otherwise. From the creation of a first-rate inaugural committee to management of intensive security (more than in any prior inaugural week), to the close of inaugural balls, dinners to prayer services, this was a flawless, finely-tuned, masterwork. The week was an exercise in vision, leadership, execution – and humility. The public did not see how difficult these layered tasks were, or how well they were executed with discipline. That is the definition of success.
Now, the reason: Donald Trump selected a quiet, effective leader, Tom Barrack, to put this inauguration together – and his organizational wizard delivered. Like the cabinet picks, Barrack was the man for the job – and Trump knew it. Why any surprise? Trump is the man who selected the right person to fix Wolman rink, when a wealthy city refused. Trump has selected a remarkable, arguably best-in-a-century, cabinet team. Still, this feat – and the new president’s knack for finding the right people for the right jobs – is arresting.
Inaugurations are often filled with ballyhooed errors. George Washington had to put off his first inauguration by 57 days, trying to get a congressional quorum. Then, organizers forgot the Bible. At Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration, in 1873, cold and wind caught planners off guard, and military personnel got carted off in ambulances. His inaugural balls were danced in coats, as food froze and canaries died.
In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower was lassoed by a ceremonial cowboy, then Vice President Richard Nixon, while taking his oath, omitted “support” from his pledge to “support and defend the Constitution.” In 1961, John F. Kennedy’s inauguration podium caught fire from a short, and in the sun’s glare, poet Robert Frost had to give up reading, instead reciting an old poem. Then Vice President Lyndon Johnson fumbled his oath, substituting “without any mental reservation whatsoever” for the Constitution’s “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” Finally, in 1973, Richard Nixon was vexed by a rooster that escaped the American History Museum, fluttering about the platform until caught. Errors and missteps are common.
Yet somehow, the rule of errors did not appear. During this recent inaugural week, Barrack did more than conduct an orchestra. He kept the new president at peace – secure in being secure. Trump spoke at all events, as observers noted he was “having fun,” which is not always easy. A Nevada supporter quipped that Trump was the “best standup” he had experienced in ages – funny, congenial, secure. These things are not accidents.
But Trump gave credit where due, first to the Armed Forces and First Responders, then to Barrack himself – whom he said midweek was on his game, “so far.” That audience laughed. At a vice president’s dinner, Trump got laughter when, speaking of the inaugural organization, he pointed to the vice president’s beautiful leather-bound folio, and compared it to his dog-eared papers. Setting the stage for future international overtures, Barrack pulled off a diplomatic dinner which has foreign ambassadors still talking. For many, if this is Trump’s idea of isolation, please refill my glass.
Then came the leadership lunch, Senate and House heavy hitters, including Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy. Trump’s Barrack stole the show with a moving, inspirational appeal to these well-heeled power-brokers to start engaging everyday Americans, as Trump was about working people and a better life for all, fulfilling America’s real promise. The ballroom at the Trump Hotel was aglow, with more than candlelight.
Later Trump’s Inauguration’s architect, engineer, and builder did a little television, with the sort of humility, candor and self-deprecating good humor that refreshed—utterly uncommon in Washington. Trump entrusted his inauguration to someone who could make it come together – and it did. Then, the great coordinator slipped quietly out of town.
That all tells us something. There is an elephant in the room. This president knows how to find talented people, put them in jobs that suit, then motivate, empower, and direct results – letting them get the job done. This president appreciates that kind of people. This inauguration was no exception to Trump’s “get it done” pattern – but was a marked exception to history’s “rule of Inaugural errors.” If there were some – in a town intent on finding and fanning human error – they were not evident, which is another statement of competence. So, maybe there is more to the Trump team than meets the eye. Maybe this inauguration tells us things we should pause to recognize.
Inaugurations require foresight and faith, contingency planning, political sensitivity, highest level security. They aspire to be orderly yet elevated, safe but relaxed, restricted while open, well-regimented yet fluid. All this is hard. And when it is made to look easy, something else is going on. Like weddings and Olympic ceremonies, inaugurations involve intense focus, high meaning. More, they involve the peaceful transfer of incalculable, imponderable power on behalf of 300 million Americans. Beyond that, they are a piece of cake.
Here, then, is what lies ahead. In an unrecognized nod to the Constitution and Lincoln’s famed Gettysburg Address, the first substantive line of the Trump inauguration speech said it all: “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all our people.” If the inauguration is any model, our proud nation is in for a great ride, and our best days lie ahead.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under George W. Bush, former New York and DC litigator, Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, and onetime congressional staff director. He writes often on law and national policy.