It was fifty years ago today, at three minutes after noon that the incumbent U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn-in for his own full term, elected in his own right as President in the 1964 election.
As Vice President, LBJ had inherited the highest office in the land when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963.
And the numerous official events that were part of that year’s Inauguration mirrored the changes which marked the decade of the Sixties over which Lyndon Johnson’s presidency unfolded. Those changes, largely cultural, would soon lead to seismic shifts in the American culture, but from his unpredictability to his exuberant, often impulsive energy, on what was his great day of celebration, LBJ left the stamp of the Swinging Sixties on what was always a staid and formal series of days and events leading up to the solemn assumption of a four-year term as chief executive.
President Kennedy’s murder had not become merely an abrupt and shocking symbol of what would soon enough become a mainstreaming of violence into the American culture, furthered as much by color news reports of Vietnam War casualties as it was by film and television dramas.
It was also a very real concern about public security, generally, and that of a President, specifically.
And it was evidenced in many of the changes marked by the 1965 Inauguration.
As the LBJ Library has detailed, there was a total of nearly five and half thousand federal and municipal police, security agents, detectives and armed-service members in full force, on the streets and in and around the buildings where the President would be.
New Mexico Cochiti Indian tribal dancers participating in the Inaugural Parade were even only able to march on the condition that the points of their arrows were removed.
Secret Service helicopters were flown over the Inaugural Parade searching out any suspicious crowd activity.
LBJ was able to take his oath of office outdoors and review the parade, but only behind bullet-proof glass. His was the first Inaugural in which a President was no longer permitted to ride in an open car and wave to the people. Crowds were only able to glimpse him under an enclosed bubbletop also made of bulletproof glass. The limousine he rode in and the parade stand he stood in were further plated with inpenetrable steel plates.
The first official Inaugural event took place on Monday, January 18. was one that no longer exists, the “Distinguished Ladies Association,” where women relatives of prominent Democratic political figures (and contributors) were feted was one begun in the mid-2oth century.
By the early 21st century, neither political party sought to include the event at Inaugurations, there being less need to distinguish women as wives of political figures because a vastly increased number were being elected or appointed to federal positions in their own right.
The most sought after and highest-priced ticket ($100) of the festivities was that night’s Inaugural Gala, held at the National Guard Armory were a galaxy of Sixties Pop Culture.
There was crooning by Bobby Darin, and a touch of grim wit by director and television series host Alfred Hitchcock.
The new Tonight Show host Johnny Cars0n provided a dry-witted but uproarious monologue, while spirited vocal performances were offered by Harry Belafonte and Barbra Streisand.
There was also dancing.
Sex kitten Ann Margret provided some of the more groovy, curvy moves, while those steps of the Ernest Flatt Dancers were all high energy and fast.
The “La Corsaire” pas de deux ballet was performed by Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
Both already popular stars, one in comedy the other in drama, a tuneful duet medley of songs was performed by friends and popular actresses Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews, the latter then reaching a zenith with her starring role in the 1964 hit film Mary Poppins.
The era’s popular folk music was heard by the famous trio Peter, Paul & Mary, while musical satire of folk music was provided by Allen Sherman (of Hello Muddah, Hello Father fame).
Even though she wasn’t an American, the wildly popular and famously beautiful Italian actress Sophie Loren was even on the Gala stage, along with distinguished actor Gregory Peck.
A stirring dance performance by the world-popular Ballet Folklórico de México was a nod to the nation’s Latino heritage, a remembrance of the Kennedys who had invited the group to perform at the White House, and the LBJ embrace of its proud Texan “Tex-Mex” culture.
There were standup comedy and routines of Woody Allen, and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
One of the highlights of the Inaugural Gala was the performance of actress Carol Channing who was, by then, a close friend to the Johnson family.
Then starring in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hello Dolly! the year before she had performed a reworked version of the play’s title song into Hello Lyndon! for LBJ’s 1964 presidential campaign.
Now, her appearance causing the show to close the night of the Gala so she could appear, she sang yet another new version, with lyrics forecasting the “Great Society” of LBJ’s full term.
On Tuesday, January 19, the Governor’s Reception and the Vice President’s Reception were held, both events which have largely survived over time.
That night’s Inaugural Concert, always more sedate that the Gala, took place, as it had previously, at Constitution Hall, with Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Gershwin performed by popular classical musicians of the era Isaac Stern and Van Cliburn (a native Texan).
There was even a concession to the rising “youthquake” of the Sixties, with a special “Young Democrats Dance” being held the night before the Inauguration. When word got out about the event, it proved so popular with older teenagers that a second hotel ballroom had to be found to meet the demand.
At the one held in the Mayflower Hotel, First Daughter Lynda Bird Johnson appeared, shaking hands in a receiving line.
At the livelier one in the Willard Hotel, however, the younger Luci Baines Johnson reigned, kicking up her heels and swinging and moving to the Frug, Jerk, Monkey and the famous dance which earned her the nickname of “Watusi Luci.”
Here’s a popular rendition of the only song after which a First Daughter was nicknamed:
The next morning, the First Family shared a quick breakfast of chipped beef on toast and then dressed for the drive from the White House to the U.S. Capitol, where the swearing-in ceremony took place. The First Lady made sure that the First Daughters were dressed and ready on time.
She had less luck with the President, the whole family finally gathering in his room as he suited up in an Oxford gray business suit and gray felt fedora, according to the LBJ Library.
Although certaintly today its unquestionable that the President’s fashion was formal, some conservative sticklers sniped that it was lax and inappropriate wear, since it broke the presidential tradition of gray striped trousers and a cutaway jacket.
If any era marked the relaxing of clothing standards for not just women but men, it was the Sixites, the President seemingly leading the way.
As much the event now seems entirely dominated by white males, for the first time there was a greater symbolic visibility of American diversity on display at a Presidential Inauguration, marking the changes that would also emerge in the national profile during the Sixties.
At the swearing-in ceremony which took place on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, religious leaders of the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faiths were invited to offer invocation and prayers.
It was President Johnson who decided that he wanted the Bible on which he would place his hand as he repeated the oath of office to be held by Lady Bird Johnson, an unprecedented move which began the tradition which continues.
In her bright red coat and hat, it was hard not to notice the First Lady, serving as a symbol of American womanhood, at a time when “Women’s Lib” was in its earliest stages. Second Lady Muriel Humphrey, wife of the new Vice President, earned her own inaugural footnote: she was garbed in a wood dress of sky blue which she had designed and sewn herself.
Also at the ceremony, “America the Beautiful” was sung by African-American Leontyne Price. At that moment, in Selma, Alabama, nearly two hundred Black Americans were being arrested simply for attempting to register for the right to vote in the county courthouse.
LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act five months before the inauguration was a turning point in regional political allegiance, the once “solid South” dating back to post-Civil War Democratic traditon there began to turn, the segregationist hold there becoming Republican.
However strategically the Secret Service had determined to control the uncontrollable LBJ, he was the President and it was his day. So when he impulsively decided to bolt out of his imprisoning limousine to greet band members of his college alma mater, all the agents could do was encirle him in a protective cordon.
President Johnson did keep within the confines of the protective Inaugural Parade reviewing stand, but whenever he decided he wanted to be heard, some new technology granted him that right.
The stand was outfitted with a loudspeaker which allowed LBJ to spout out loud enough for the nearby crowds to hear, “You are wonderful people, and you have made this such a lovely day, and we will try so hard to be worthy of your trust and friendship.” According to the LBJ Library, it was “an adaptation of the electronic bullhorn that was part of every Johnson campaign.”
The 1965 LBJ Inaugural Parade also earned one of the most unique benchmarks in presidential history. One of the more distinguished members of the First Family was invited to enjoy the passing floats, military formations and marching bands, making him the very first First Dog to be a presence at an Inauguration.
The five Inaugural Balls that night offered a more casual innovation. Cabaret tables were set up to permit guests a chance to socialize, smoke, drink and eat some of the massive cakes which were also a first – and last, innovation provided at Presidential Inaugural Balls.
LBJ may be loved for his efforts on behalf of education, civil rights fighting poverty, and despised for his Vietnam War policy, but most people agreed that no President loved to dance more than he did.
Despite warnings about the crush of crowds at each of the balls, Johnson insisted he would swirl and whoosh on the dance floor at his presidential inaugural balls.
And he did as he intended, mostly with his wife but even spotting former President Truman’s daughter at one of the balls and bodily lifting her out of a viewing box to cut it up with him.
At the very first ball, the one held in the Mayflower Hotel, LBJ’s first dance was with his wife – but within just fifteen minutes, he’s switched to nine different other women.
Not all of the balls were jam-packed. In fact, because there were so many of them, several provided more than enough floor space for guests to truly relax and enjoy themselves.
Although George Washington did decide to attend a scheduled New York dancing “assembly,” the private event opened only to subscription members was held several weeks after his inauguration as the first President in 1789.
Washington never danced at an Inaugural Ball because none, in the strictest sense, was organized just for that purpose.
From that point on, all through the 19th century, the early and mid-20th century freshly-inaugurated Presidents were able to only sit above the crowd in the presidential box and watch the crowds polka and waltz to their heart’s content.
(No official Inaugural Balls were held under Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and F.D.R. and none attended the charity balls held instead)
Just watching from above was not for LBJ. Not even at the dangerously overcrowded Armory Ball.
It all added up to one more light-hearted, Swinging Sixties footnote for LBJ’s big day: he became the first President in history to dance at his own Inaugural Ball.
Providing the dance music were not only some of the era’s most popular orchestral dance bands such as Meyer Davis, Lester Lanin, Guy Lombardo and Peter Duchin but also jazz legend Louis Armstrong (then hitting the top of the charts with his version of Hello Dolly!) and a popular, melodious folk song quartette of the era known as The Brothers Four, most familiar for their renditions of Yellow Bird, and Try to Remember (The Kind of September).
For Lady Bird Johnson, the most memorable moment of the entire 1965 Inaugural was a line her husband spontaneously called out during his Inaugural Address as he looked down on the silent tens of thousands of faces looking up to him, entrusting him as their leader.
Part of being what it meant to be an American, he declared, was the “excitement of becoming,” which he described as, “always becoming, trying, probing, failing, resting and trying again – but always trying and always gaining.”
One guest later reflected that, in hindsight, the most haunting moment for her of the 1965 Inaugural festivities was hearing the poignant rendition by The Brothers Four of the song Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Within just two years, it would become what she called a “rallying hymn for peace” against the escalation and worsening carnage of the Vietnam War, a tragedy which soon consumed LBJ and haunted him until he decided not to seek the presidency again in 1968.
Just eight years later, two days after the 1973 Inauguration of his successor Richard Nixon, President Johnson died.