There is but one moment when the Oval Office is truly between its masters, under the command only of the constitutional spirit that has long made America the world’s greatest democracy.
It occurs at precisely noon, on those infrequent quadrennial Jan. 20s when the people of the United States are transferring their presidency from one political party to another.
I have witnessed two of those rare moments, as the only person in the doorway of the Oval Office at precisely noon on Inauguration Day. Today, those recollections enable us to reflect on the essence of our democracy — and what seems to be missing this time around.
Jan. 20, 1977: A bright noontime sun glistens off a meringue-like snowy glaze spread across the Rose Garden outside; it pours through the French doors and windows and bathes the Oval Office in a surreal brilliance.
Jerry Ford’s large wooden desk stands emptied, polished and bare except for a pair of long stemmed pens standing in their holders. This cornerless room where history is routinely made is silent, except for a familiar voice emanating from a television in some nearby office: “I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear.”
Nell Yates enters the room softly. She embodies the permanence of the presidency, having been a White House secretary for Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. She glances at the bare desk, shakes her head and disappears. Minutes later she is back, carrying Woodrow Wilson’s “Life and Letters” and “The Papers of Alexander Hamilton.”
She stands them between two bookends on the president’s desktop. “At least now it makes you want to come in and do some work,” she says.
Orderly and matter-of-factly, Americans transferred their presidency from a Republican to a Democrat.
Jan. 20, 1981: It is noontime and, just for the moment, the Oval Office is at rest. Except for Dominador T. Julian, whose service goes back to Eisenhower.
He is polishing a brass doorknob and listening to the same television set where, all morning, his last boss, Jimmy Carter, monitored TV news while working (unsuccessfully) to convince Iran to release their U.S. embassy staff hostages. Now, on the TV, Julian hears his new boss: “I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear.”
Suddenly the stillness is shattered.
A door swings open; five men in dark suits and ties start performing the furniture-rearranging precision drill, exactly as they rehearsed it. Silently, they pivot the sofas, end tables and a floor-based globe. They replace Cabinet Room portraits of Jefferson and Truman with Eisenhower and Coolidge. Lincoln, being a Republican, stays. A White House painter, anxious to please his new bosses, does last-minute touchups. Oops, he’s forgotten to remove his Carter-Mondale button on his coveralls.
Carter had depomped the presidency; Reagan is all about repomping it. Minutes after the inaugural oath, Iran released its hostages. Reagan simply announced it. A frightful ordeal had ended as peacefully as our transfer of power from a Democrat to a Republican.
Fast-forward to Jan. 20, 2017.
This doesn’t seem to be the day power gets transferred — because in a real sense, this president-elect began making international policies weeks ago.
Trump had the world reacting to his tweets for weeks, praising all things Putin (while flaring at suggestions that Russia’s criminal stealing and leaking of Democratic emails helped him win). Trump tough-talked and taunted China as if geopolitics is just another big casino deal. And like a grade school bully, he spewed unrelated immaturities at his critics.
When civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis said he wasn’t a legitimate president, Trump attacked Lewis’ Atlanta district as impoverished and crime-ridden (actually it’s cosmopolitan and thriving). When Meryl Streep attacked him for ridiculing a handicapped man, Trump called her a lousy actress.
Time out: While I respect and revere Lewis, I think he was wrong to say he’d boycott Trump’s inauguration. Inaugurations aren’t for the victors, they’re how we honor our world’s greatest democracy — regardless of the outcome.
But Trump’s ridiculing of a disabled man deserves to be his ultimate deal-breaker.
In December 2015, I wrote about how this was worse than all of Trump’s other bullying. Anyone who saw Trump ridicule the physically disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski knows Trump has been lying ever since by insisting he did no such thing. In 2015, I quoted a woman (who has a disability) as saying of Trump: “He is a soulless man.” And I asked: What does it tell us that the Republican Party had just made a soulless man its frontrunner?
In this inauguration week, we must again return to this affront we have all seen and deplored. If Trump ever wants our respect, he must start his presidency by apologizing, genuinely and publicly, to Serge Kovaleski.
Americans are decent people. We can never truly respect a president who childishly insists upon proving he is a hopelessly soulless man.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.