Sergeant Pepper Goes to the Inaugural

Sergeant Pepper Goes to the Inaugural

The military was mostly absent from Inauguration Day festivities.

To: U.S. Army General
Martin Dempsey
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Washington, D.C.

Dear General:

The 57th presidential inauguration was held January 21, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The symbolism of President Obama taking the oath of office on Dr. King’s holiday, about two miles away from the location of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, was much commented upon by the chattering classes. But to me, there was a more important and enduring symbolism. You were nowhere in evidence.

As a small boy, I remember watching Movietone News, which preceded the Saturday matinee at our local movie house. Some king or royal personage was always being sworn in to some seemingly important governmental position, and in almost every instance, surrounded by men in uniforms festooned with ribbons and medals. The Latin American countries seemed to do this to a remarkable degree, complete with the most amazing gold-braided epaulets.

0213_openletter_p1.jpgThe Marine Band was virtually the only military visible at the President's inauguration.

But not at the American presidential inaugural. You, sir, were nowhere to be seen. In fact, no one in a military uniform from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any other branch of the military was in evidence. No military color guard presenting the family Bible, no military oath given to defend the country. The Air Force flies more jets over the Super Bowl at halftime than flew over the presidential inaugural. Tanks do not rumble down the streets of Washington in solemn support of the new president.

The only military presence that I could find in any of the media, or in any of the extensive television coverage was from the Marine Band. Thus the only military presence at the inaugural, in uniform at least, featured Marines carrying musical instruments, not weapons. The Marine Band is splendiferous and superb and is somewhat reminiscent of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And that is how America changes power in the most powerful country on earth every four years. No tanks. No armed military. No top brass decked out in battle filigree.

President Obama’s second inaugural speech kept to the now-customary less than 20 minutes (a real concern when President Clinton gave his first inaugural address) and contained the usual references to American exceptionalism, a quote from the Declaration of Independence, and a call to greatness by “we the people.” His cadence seemed a little predictable and somewhat rushed. The president resisted obvious symbolism on Martin Luther King Day and instead, with deft implication, referred to hearing “a King proclaim.” To many of us who remember 1963 (and more tearfully, 1968), it was a touching moment.

Inaugural speeches typically avoid specific and controversial policy pronouncements; those are frequently left to the State of the Union speech. But in this case, and somewhat surprisingly, President Obama urged that “we the people” complete our journey from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall to full equality for gays. He urged that we confront the scientific evidence and the risks posed by global warming. He reaffirmed that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid do not weaken our country, they strengthen it. Previous presidential inaugurals have not been so detailed, except when it came to matters of war. Most presidents have a great deal to say about threats to the country and war in general. But this president mentioned war only in the context of bringing our troops home at the end of a war (no strutting about making the world safe from Osama bin Laden).

And so it was a good day to be an American. A faithful military under civilian control, welded to the concept of defense of our way of life, which requires the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. We are glad that you were nowhere in evidence, and I’m sure you were too. We like military bands and the military in its finery with musical instruments in their hands. Sergeant Pepper can march in all of our inaugurals. It’s a great country, and your absence helps make it so.

Vance K. Opperman
An Inaugural Fan

Vance K. Opperman ( is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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