By Phill Brooks
If you wander by Missouri’s Capitol in December and notice workmen mowing the dormant lawn, you know the state is preparing for its inauguration.
It’s among the steps in weeks of work for the day-long ceremony. Despite all the preparation, there usually is not much of major public-policy significance that will happen — except, of course, for the peaceful transfer of power.
While the governor’s inaugural address may have lofty rhetoric, the specific proposals of news significance tend to be put off until the governor’s State of the State address to the legislature a week or two later.
Inauguration day starts with a morning prayer service and parade. It ends with the inaugural ball in the state Capitol.
Unlike the president’s inauguration, Missouri’s inaugural ball is open to anybody. Years ago, I used to see local teenagers wandering the building’s hallways hoping to get free alcoholic drinks offered from legislative offices.
While largely confined to ceremony, there have been some fascinating news stories that have emerged from Missouri’s inaugurations.
For those of us who have been covering the statehouse for more than a few decades, the most memorable was the 1977 inauguration of Gov. Joe Teasdale. It was memorable not for what Teasdale said, but for the temperature of the outdoor ceremony. It was the coldest I’ve ever covered.
My long-time press corps colleague Bob Priddy, who keeps a near archive of information on inaugurations, tells me it was four degrees below zero. For those of us sitting outside, it felt a lot, lot colder. The wind chill was -44 degrees.
It was so cold that the ceremony took a break. It had to. The National Guard was treating people for frostbite.
At the time, I was producing live coverage for Missouri public radio stations. We were located on a viewing platform, high enough to see over the audience. But we also were high enough to catch the brunt of the freezing winds.
It was so cold that my engineer suddenly left the control board to get warm. His hands had gotten so cold he could not handle the switches. It was so cold that we could not play background features we had recorded because the oil in the tape machines had nearly frozen.
To fill time during one of the breaks, I sent a reporter onto the platform to do live interviews with whomever remained outside. There she found newly elected U.S. Sen. John Danforth. She introduced Danforth and the woman next to him whom she said she presumed was Danforth’s wife, Sally.
Oops. It was not Sally Danforth. It was not even a woman. Instead, it was Missouri’s senior senator, Tom Eagleton.
He looked like a woman because he was covered with a shawl that Sally Danforth had given him to keep warm while the two senator’s wives waited inside to escape the brutal weather.
Thirty-four years later, I still involuntarily shiver when I see the inaugural platform being constructed outside the statehouse, remembering the agony of 1977.
One news story from a subsequent inauguration emerged only months later. It involved the evening celebrations after the inauguration of Gov. Bob Holden in 2005.
The incoming Democratic governor decided to make it a much more elaborate, two-day affair. He spent more than $1 million on the inauguration. For the evening events, the actor Tony Randall was hired as master of ceremonies. A special event was arranged for children at a nearby hotel.
The Associated Press reported at the time that it was the most expensive inauguration for any state in the country that year — including $10,000 just for chocolate candy.
Most of the cost was to be covered by private contributions. But when Holden took office, he was still more than $400,000 in debt for his inaugural parties.
Months later, the debt finally got paid off with the help of contributions from organized labor. The contributions came shortly after the governor signed an executive order expanding the right of organized labor to represent state government workers.
It generated months of attack by Republicans charging a payoff.
John Ashcroft’s 1985 and 1989 inaugurations had an interesting twist. Ashcroft, a member of the Assemblies of God, does not dance. So, rather than leading off the inaugural ball dancing with his wife, he sat down at a piano to play “The Missouri Waltz.”
As Ashcroft demonstrated, he was an outstanding piano player. He also enjoyed a national reputation as a singer. He was baritone of the “Singing Senators” barbershop quartet when he was in the U.S. Senate.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.