How Washington, D.C. prepared for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan

The hoopla surrounding the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in 1981 made it look more like a coronation.

Merchandise commemorating the 1981 swearing-in included buttons, mugs and licence plates

Inauguration, or coronation?

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40 years ago
A CBC reporter in Washington, D.C. surveys the hubbub leading up to the swearing-in of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981. 2:57

The hoopla surrounding the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in 1981 made it look more like a coronation.

From Washington, D.C., CBC reporter Sheldon Turcott said the swearing-in of a U.S. president had, at that point, gone beyond a "mere political event" in recent years. 

"These days, it's more akin to the crowning of a new monarch," said the reporter.

But unlike the coronation of royalty, which could take a year to put together, planning for a January inauguration could only begin after the election of the previous November.

West side story

The west side of the U.S. Capitol Building was the site of the inauguration for the first time when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. (The National/CBC Archives)

Turcott said that for the first time in American history, a president-elect was to be sworn in on the west side of the U.S. Capitol building.

"Ronald Reagan didn't want to turn his back on the nation," he explained. 

But that side of the Capitol was "crumbling."

"One senator suggested, only half-jokingly, that George [H.W.] Bush should be sworn in as vice president somewhere else," said Turcott, as the camera showed the Capitol in brilliant sunshine. "Just in case the building collapses on Ronald Reagan."

Turcott said it took "a lot of money and a lot of people" to put on a successful inauguration. For one thing, that meant more than 3,000 volunteers.

"I'm with the inaugural committee's volunteers office," said a man overheard on the telephone. "And I'm a volunteer looking for more volunteers."

Peddling memories

Robert Gray, co-chairman of the inaugural committee, said the event would be "a shared experience right across the country." (The National/CBC Archives)

As for the "millions of dollars" needed to put on an inauguration — which Turcott said wasn't paid for "out of taxes" — the committee had a steady income stream from souvenirs.

"It would cost more than $11,000 to buy one of everything that's approved by the committee," said Turcott.

Among those items for sale were licence plates starting at $25, as well as "buttons and mugs and pennants and the like," many of which were shown on camera.

Aside from the merchandise, the swearing-in ceremony, a parade and a "marathon round" of celebrations added up to a busy day.

"Even officials involved in preparations for the event concede that each time out, Republican or Democrat, inauguration day becomes more like a coronation," said Turcott.

A pennant commemorating Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration joined similar souvenirs including plates, mugs and buttons. (The National/CBC Archives)