The Ghost of Inaugural Lunches Past

Now its a pageant, but the post inauguration meal used to be a pretty mild affair

Brian Wolly

If you haven’t already heard about Obama’s first lunch as president, and how it’s an homage to Lincoln’s comfort foods, from the stewed oysters right down to the apple cinnamon cake, the details are here. (Kindly provided by the Joint Congressional Commission on Inaugural Ceremonies, who’ve been so thoughtful as to provide the recipes, too.)

You may have read plenty about the historical precedents for all these inaugural ceremonies, luncheons, and balls, but how much video have you seen from them? The Inaugural Commission’s website gives you a fascinating peek back through time, from Dubya’s two lunches all the way back to newsreel-style narrated footage of JFK sitting down with senators and poets. They may not reveal a wealth of culinary secrets, but they are morsels of history, wrapped up in the details, distractions, and conventions of their own time.

Inaugural lunch, a la 1961/ Joint Congressional Commission on Inaugural Ceremonies

Looking back at George W. Bush on January 20, 2001 - when he was freer with that sideways smile, still giving the impression of not quite believing this was happening to him, and thanking his mother in his opening remarks - it's clear just how much we all lost eight months later, that September.

At Clinton’s second inauguration, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich adopts a gracious air but taunted the President about the recent election anyway. The Democrats still have the White House, he said, eyebrows jumping up and down, but let's not forget which party controls both houses of Congress.

Reagan’s 1985 inauguration featured a similar bit of ribbing. Fresh off the Gipper’s drubbing of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, the master of ceremonies offers to omit the reading of the electoral college score, to save Speaker Tip O’Neill from the heartache of hearing it again.

Footage of Richard Nixon’s 1973 inauguration luncheon is notable perhaps for its lack of voiceover - a "no comment" from the producers? The previous June, five men had broken into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate office complex, but the world didn't know about it yet.

In many of these decades-old pieces it’s shocking, by today's showbiz-saturated standards, to see how little attention went to stage managing. Back before 24-hour news, image building, and gaffe-hunting, a luncheon was mostly just lunch. At JFK’s, the food was served buffet style. Senators and vice presidents – and Robert Frost, too – walked down a line of fold-up tables, plate in hand, waiting for a guy in a white hat to carve off a hunk of prime rib. Everyone sat in low-backed folding chairs, the kind you might find packed in a community center closet in between bingo nights.

Amid all this historical reverie, I found one last sign of the times truly inspiring. It's a brief appearance, when a server darts into the frame to hand plates to a chef. He was the only African-American I saw in all that 1961 footage.

This time around, it’s different. And that's change you can sink your fork into. Bon appetit, Mr. President!

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