To Solemnly Forswear

For all the havoc and misery the Kennedy assassination wrought upon the United States 50 years ago last week, it nonetheless yielded one slight, incidental benefit:  The most agreeable swearing-in ceremony in the history of the American presidency.

As you probably know (thanks to a famous photograph), the ceremonial presidential succession on November 22, 1963, occurred in a very crowded cabin aboard Air Force One as it flew the slain president’s corpse from Dallas to Washington, D.C.  Sarah Hughes, a Texas-based federal judge, administered the oath of office to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who solemnly repeated it back to her and thus formally became the nation’s 36th chief executive.

That was it.  No pomp, no fancy ceremony, no parade, no inaugural balls.  Just a simple affirmation that, yes, the peaceful, orderly transfer of power enshrined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution is still in force, even in the most horrific, disorderly times.

I wonder:  Why can’t the simplicity, dignity and austerity of the Johnson swearing-in be the rule, not the exception?  How I wish that it were.

From an item in the Boston Globe over the holiday weekend, it was reported that Marty Walsh, the incoming mayor of the City of Beans, is seeking private contributions of up to $50,000 to fund his January 6 inauguration and its related activities.

According to the article, the event “could be the city’s priciest mayoral bash ever” and will reportedly include an “inaugural gala” and a “private appreciation” for its most generous donors, with the number of tickets per capita determined by the precise generosity of said donations.  Festivities will also include “events for children and for seniors, and a day of volunteer service.”

Because the full cost of this Walsh-a-palooza will be borne by private entities, be they corporations or individuals, the incoming administration has been made to answer all the usual questions about what these contributors might be getting for their money.

One can hardly be faulted for asking—this is politics, after all—and the situation is made dodgier still by the fact that, as the Globe notes, “Nonprofit inaugural committees are not governed by campaign finance rules and, thus, are not required to disclose donors or hew to limits, and are not required to file paperwork with state campaign finance officials.”

In other words, there is nothing unusual or legally suspect about any of this.  It’s business, and politics, as usual. Austerity be damned—we’re gonna celebrate and it’s gonna be big!

Is this the moral tradeoff for not financing an inauguration bash with public money?  On this Thanksgiving weekend, should we just be grateful our taxpayer dollars are off-limits and not trouble our pretty little heads about what might be going on in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms?

If you answered in the negative to either or both, then you must wonder, as I do, why we bother with these lavish inaugural exercises at all, both at the local level and in Washington, D.C.

Officially speaking, they are completely unnecessary:  Any given transfer of power takes place at the constitutionally-designated time regardless of what anyone does to mark the occasion.  To the extent that the swearing-in itself carries any legal (rather than ceremonial) significance—a subject of constitutional debate at the federal level—no other aspect of the start of one’s term does, and could be abandoned without any legal ramifications.

Marty Walsh got elected Boston’s mayor, in part, on the basis of his reputation as an honest and decent man.  But one need not be an inherently corrupt person to be corrupted by the political process.  Any large-scale fundraising operation is fraught with the possibility of ethical transgressions.  Why bother initiating such an operation if it serves no real public purpose?

Unfortunately, we know exactly why:  Because when it comes to amassing large sums of cash, the public interest is the first thing to go.

A public official may well profess to care more about the little man than the corporate behemoth, and he may well be telling the truth.  But it doesn’t change the fact that our system, at present, is designed for the opposite to be the case:  A politician has to follow the money whether he wants to or not, because if he doesn’t, he stands to lose the only power with which he could possibly help the little man in the first place.

Granting that such a state of affairs is now irreversible—an arguable point—could we at least make the effort to keep money out of inaugurations, thereby returning them to their more modest roots?  Or is that just too much to forswear?

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