View from Mudsock Heights

It’s inauguration day. Some of the events are calm and predictable; let us pray that all of them are, but as I write this I do not know and would place no bets.

Generally, presidential inaugurations are festive by Washington standards, though this hasn’t always been the case. Four years ago we were asked by our new leader to discount the evidence of our own eyes and believe that far more people than anyone could find had showed up for the event.

We wondered if this was how things would be. It turned out that it was, and thus began a presidency that had many things in common with professional wrestling. (We did not then imagine it would end, as it did two weeks ago, with what amounted to a bargain-basement Henry II asking will no one rid me of this turbulent vice president.)

But 2017’s wasn’t the most consequential inauguration. An entry for that dubious honor surrounds an Ohioan, William Henry Harrison – “Tippecanoe” in the election slogan – on March 4, 1841. Demonstrating his bravado, Harrison rejected proffered niceties and rode hatless on horseback in the inauguration procession (or whatever they had in 1841) before delivering an address that lasted two hours. He attended inaugural balls that night.

There has since that time been debate as to whether these things were the reason, but a month to the day later he was dead, the last president who was born before there was a United States and the first president to die in office.

He set the record for the shortest presidency, which he holds to this day. (Had things gone in the last two weeks the way some people hoped, he would have lost that title to Mike Pence, had Trump been impeached, convicted, and removed before today.)

During times of peace and times of war, we have always gone ahead with our presidential inaugurations. There is one in particular that stands out in my memory, and I thought I’d tell you a little about it.

On Tues., Jan. 20, 1981, I was the new still-wet-behind-the-ears newswriter at WOR Radio in New York, at the time the number one radio station in the city and therefore the country. I’d started there about two weeks earlier. Jimmy Carter, having lost the 1980 presidential election, would soon leave office. Ronald Reagan would replace him. Reagan had campaigned hard against Carter’s handling of the situation in Iran, where 52 Americans had been held hostage for, on January 20, 444 days. If elected he would, he said, crack down on the Tehran regime. While those of us with nothing better to do can unprofitably debate whether the advent of Reagan made the Iranians more willing to negotiate, there is no doubt that in the days before the inauguration progress was made.

My new duties at WOR included serving as the weekend news editor. The teletype’s five-bell bulletin alarms had been frenzied the previous Saturday and especially Sunday. Much of the noise came via the Associated Press from Iran’s official PARS news agency, which was about as reliable as Frontier Communications internet service. (PARS, as is Frontier Communications, was a monopoly.)

Stunning new bulletins from PARS came about as frequently then as Frontier internet goes down today – several times per hour.

By that Sunday, two days before the inauguration, it was clear that there was some sort of movement, though details were few and the ones we had were vague. Nevertheless, it was clear that something was happening and in consultation with the news anchor, Larry Bozman, I decided to break programming and go with a special report when PARS announced that the U.S. and Iran had reached an agreement to free the hostages.

It was a disaster. If I’d been smart enough to wait a minute more it would have provided time to make sure the taped reports we were using were cued up and we would have had a better idea of what we were saying. But no. We were no sooner off the air than the phone rang. It was the news director, Reg Laite, and he was not happy. I had no defense, except that the other local stations had done what we did.

The next morning he told me one of the best things a news executive has ever said: “I will never fault you for not getting it first. I will always fault you for not getting it right.” It was among the two or three wisest things anyone has ever said to me. (Radio being radio, Reg Laite was out within the year, replaced by an expensive new “big-name” news reader, Lou Adler from WCBS. WOR was never number one again. Reg, I only now have learned, dies last May at age 89.)

The bulletin alarms continued unabated all of Monday, and we covered their contents, with appropriate caveats, in our newscasts. Now it was Tuesday, inauguration day. I was taking in tape and writing the news and, like everyone else in the large and busy newsroom, on high alert. It seemed as if the hostages would be released any minute now, but there had been many dashed hopes during the previous 444 days. It was certain that the inauguration would take place as scheduled. If the hostages got released, how would we cover both stories? Steve Dunlop, the weekday morning editor, had the toughest job in the room.

Fortunately, while WOR was a member of several radio networks, our news coverage was entirely locally produced. This meant that we had a world of material we could use, though it also meant we would need to be quick in our editing – done at the time with a razor blade and a splicing block before dubbing to an 8-track-like “cart” — and careful in our presentation. It also meant that the dean of New York radio newsmen, Lester Smith, could give a play-by-play of the inaugural procession and opening niceties while also providing the latest on the hostage release, rushed in to him from the newsroom, where we were monitoring ... everything. He was aided by the presence of two television sets in the studio. One was tuned to ABC, which had owned the hostage coverage from the beginning. We took a network feed of Reagan’s address itself, which of course we broadcast live. When Reagan was done, Lester was able to tell our large audience that as the new president spoke, the hostages had been released and were now enroute to Algiers, then to the Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Germany.

The United States breathed a sigh of relief. It had no idea what else 1981 had in store.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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