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Schieffer, Plante look back at inaugurations past

With narratives driven by protests, the weather, and the politics of the day, every inauguration since George Washington's in 1789 has captured a story unique to that president, and to his moment in time.

Having spent a combined 80 years covering the every-four-year tradition, CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer remember some of the highs and lows of inaugurations past.

"Every one of them is different," Schieffer marveled. And the most dramatic, the pair agreed, was Ronald Reagan's swearing-in in 1981, which marked the release of the 52 U.S. hostages who had been held captive in Iran for 444 days; victims of the turbulent Iranian Revolution.

"The Iranians wouldn't give Jimmy Carter the satisfaction of releasing those people, despite the fact that a deal had been made," said Plante, whose first inauguration was Carter's in 1977. Minutes after Reagan took the oath of office, the Americans were let go.

Schieffer, going on his 12th inauguration, remembered more lighthearted fare from his first, Richard Nixon's in 1969. A rookie at the time, Schieffer was assigned to cover a protest group called the Youth International Party (Yippies), which had nominated a pig named Pigasus for president, and was inaugurating him at the Washington Monument.

"Well, it was driving rain," Schieffer recalled. "We got down there, the pig got out. Everyone was chasing around this pig in the mud.

"I called my mother that night," Schieffer continued, "and she said, 'Oh it must have been so wonderful. Did you get to go to any of the inaugural balls, did you get to see any of the beautiful dresses?' And I said, 'Mama, I didn't even get indoors; I was out there chasing around a pig,' which is not exactly the way I thought I'd start my Washington career."

Most inaugurations, though, are emblematic of the president being sworn in. Schieffer remembered that during the inaugural parade in 1977, Carter got out of his car and began walking, hand-in-hand with his wife Rosalynn, down Pennsylvania Avenue. "He had run as sort of the people's candidate - he carried his own garment bag when he got off the campaign plane," Schieffer said. "And so this was sort of a follow-up on that."

And sometimes, the outgoing president overshadows the incoming president. In 2001, when George W. Bush was inaugurated for the first time, "the drama was all before noon," Plante said. In the hours ahead of Bush's swearing-in, Clinton signed a consent decree agreeing that he wouldn't be prosecuted for anything he'd done or said while in office, and pardoned 140 people, including a high-level financier.

"He'd been up all night doing this," Plante said, and "by the time George W. Bush got to be sworn in, it was almost anticlimactic."

Departing at Andrews Air Force Base later in the day, Schieffer said, the notoriously long-winded Clinton spent hours making speeches and glad-handing. "People downtown were saying, 'When is he going to get on the plane?'" Plante added that before Clinton did board the plane, he assured Americans, "I'm not really leaving."


Still, Plante said he'd give the best speech over the years to Clinton in 1993, when he laid out his plan for a "new generation." And Clinton, Plante said, "could be a riveting speaker, just like the current president."

The most "moving" sight that Schieffer could remember, he said, was President Obama's in 2009. "You had a million and a half people spread down the Mall," he said. "That is the largest group of people that ever assembled in Washington for anything, at any time. And just to see that great mass of humanity there.

"Sometimes I think the speeches are not as important as the ceremony itself," Schieffer continued. "Because what the ceremony is, it's a validation of who this country is, and how we do things. You know, the remarkable thing, and I always catch my breath: At the appointed time, on the appointed day, the old president leaves, and the new president is sworn in. They don't have to have guns to get the old guy out, there's never any doubt about whether he's gonna leave. He leaves."

"A peaceful transfer of power," Plante said.

"And there are still many places in the world today," Schieffer reflected, "where that's no longer the case."