Friday, January 14, 2011

Inauguration Storms in the Penny Press!

It's naturally a bit daunting to open the legendary Open Letters PO box and find the waxy, inhuman features of talentless android/congenital idiot Justin Bieber emptily smirking back at me.

But Vanity Fair, which sports a cover photo of this most noxious Canadian import of them all, is too good a magazine to fling away in horror, so I braved not only the photo but the accompanying article (lack of talent? Confirmed. Android status? Confirmed. Congenital Idiocy? Screams from the rooftops) - pitying the poor slob of an interviewer who had to try to make something out of this soap bubble for 2000 words (she tries her level best to make things interesting to anybody but a hyperventilating 12-year-old girl, but although I pride myself on being hyperventilating 12-year-old girl, my interest flagged). It was worth it, I told myself, to get to the good stuff.

The issue had a great deal of good stuff, as it always does, but how could I not give top honors to Todd Purdum's luminously happy account of the "tidal wave of glamour, promise, and high spirits that descended on the capital for the 1961 inauguration of the youngest president ever elected, John F. Kennedy"? I'd most likely have enjoyed this piece more than anything in the issue even if it had been poorly done - but that's thankfully not the case here: Purdum keeps a very nice narrative flow going, and he has a great eye for anecdotes.

There are anecdotes in endless supply, about those heady two days in Washington (wags among you will ask if I was there, despite my oft-repeated assertion that I am, in fact, a 28-year-old stone-cold super-hottie, but in point of fact I wasn't present for the occasion), about everything from the cavalcade of stars who showed up to ham in the spotlight (Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, the mighty Mahalia Jackson, and many more) to the unexpected and almost-crippling snowstorm that hit the capital at the exact same time.

Washington very famously paralyzes in inclement weather, and this storm ended up stranding entertainers, dignitaries, and well-wishers in all kinds of awkward combinations. Comedian Bill Dana remembered being stuck in a station wagon with a royally ticked off Ethel Merman: "I learned a lot of swearwords I didn't know existed from the lovely mouth of Ethel Merman." And the new White House social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, was stuck for two hours in a car with a Secret Service agent and a reporter, until they finally convinced a shop owner to open up and sell them some scotch. "We had our own little gala," she remembered, "We got out of the car at one point and danced in the snow."

It couldn't help but strike a chord in me, of course, especially since Purdum interviews Russell Baker, who was covering the event for the New York Times and shared an anecdote about Times columnist Arthur Krock, who was also caught in the storm that night. Krock started off his career 52 years earlier, covering the Taft administration, and that set the bells ringing right there - since of course President Kennedy wasn't the first 20th century president to have Mother Nature attend his inauguration.

The same thing happened to President Taft on March 4th, 1909, when a stinging, sleety, bitterly cold snowstorm struck Washington just in time to make a mess of all the preparations for the big day - most of which had featured outdoor events. Suddenly, seats under hastily-improvised canopies were selling for the moon, and spectators who'd counted on hearing a bit of that rolling, adenoidal Taft oratory were stuck with hearing about it from the relatively small crowd who could fit into the Senate chamber. The new president's wife accompanied him from the ceremony in an open-topped horse-drawn buggy, and that was just one more thing that made Taft's security detail nervous. His detail was larger than any previous president, not only because of President McKinley's recent assassination but also because candidate Taft had received some nasty letters from lunatics who, believe it or not, disliked the fact that he was a Unitarian (the president-elect was never shown the worst of these letters - a sound procedure that remains in effect today).

Even in the black-and-white photos of the day, you can see the tension in those men, walking at even intervals alongside the presidential carriage, many of them with coats draped over their arms despite the cold - in order to conceal the pistols they had at the ready. The poor sap who insisted on being closest to the new President (you can partially make out his less-than-fashionable beaten-up brown derby at Taft's right elbow if you try, and there are probably closer-up photos out there somewhere - and he was one sufferer among many that day in any case) got his shoes full of ice-cold slush for his troubles, but the day went off without a nefarious turn of any kind.

Ditto JFK's - all motorized, thank God - and Purdum does a wonderful job of capturing the excitement and fun of the time. Here's hoping he's working on a book about it all, before many more of the eyewitnesses die off.


Sarah Cox said...

What is your reasoning for Justin Bieber being talentless? He has an incredible voice-no one can deny that. You shouldn't be criticizing him unless you have also taught yourself to play four different instruments tremendously well, won four AMA's and other awards, been one of the top selling artists of 2010 and made $100 million last year. Since he is well liked by the public, I would not suggest you call him "waxy, inhuman" or "talentless."

Steve Donoghue said...

You're actually trying to tell me I have to DUPLICATE his achievements before I can assess them? You're aware of how moronic that is, right? And in any case I do indeed deny that he has an 'incredible' voice; on the very, very rare occasions when it isn't strengthened, deepened, and broadened by technological enhancements - on his 'acoustic' work, as it were - his voice sounds ... ordinary. Nasal. Over-stressed. Melodramatic. Poorly paced. There's a bit of a through-line to it, but nothing more than you could find in a dozen boys his own age in virtually every high school in America. If I were you, I'd stick to the 'entertainer' line of argument and steer clear of the 'musical prodigy' line. Although even then you'd be on shaky ground: his concerts are so phony and derivative they're almost funny ... and not 'ha ha' funny but rather 'I really, really dislike this kid' way. Best bet: just admit you think he's cute and let it go at that.

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