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THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan

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What does the inaugural signify? The red-coated US Marine Corps band strikes up "Hail to the Chief" as the president and president-elect emerge from the Capitol (this year for the first time on the West Portico) and proceed to the front of the inaugural platform. A few minutes later (as Laurin Henry says in "Presidential Transitions"), after prayers and patriotic songs, the president-elect stands beside the chief justice of the United States and repeats a simple oath. "An instant ago he was a private citizen. Now, invested with the authority of the presidency, he turns and speaks to the nation and to the world. He finishes and withdraws; the marines hail the new chief while the old chief slips away as inconspicuously as he can. Symbolically and legally, there has been perfect continuity in the nation's highest office."

Every four years this reporter takes his paperbound book of "Inaugural Addresses," 1974 (which the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., will send citizens for $3.50), and goes over the much-thumbed addresses, with their startling evocations of history. My copy is only down to Richard Milhous Nixon's second inaugural in 1973. Some are like nostalgic antiques evoking the mood of the time; others are like flashes of lightning that suddenly illuminate whole landscapes.

Here is Woodrow Wilson on March 5, 1917, passionately supporting "armed neutrality" against the war that will engulf him a month later (April 6).

Here is Lyndon Johnson in 1965, declaring as he uses the words "Great Society" for the first time, that "even now, a rocket moves toward Mars." Yes, while he talks, he says, the rocket changes man's perspective of his world: "It is like a child's globe, hanging in space, the continents stuck to its side like colored maps. We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth.And each of us, in the span of time, has really only a moment among his companions."

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