The senator who presides over the presidential inauguration as the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies wins some appreciation from colleagues on Capitol Hill. But the job’s risks are greater than any public accolades it brings.
If Sen. Roy Blunt does his job well, the new president, Donald Trump, will shine. Only if something goes wrong on Jan. 20 will the Missouri Republican get any attention off the Hill.
In that sense, it’s a job that fits Blunt’s talents. He has remained in the GOP leadership for years, not by attention-seeking but by working behind the scenes. Colleagues rely on him to serve as a conduit for communications with each other, the House and the business community.
He’s a longtime member of the leadership team, but never the top dog. He’s currently the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. His big play for a prestige position — a run for majority leader when he was a member of the House in 2006 — came up short when colleagues elected his opponent, Ohio’s John A. Boehner, in an upset. He got the inaugural assignment by virtue of his position, in the just-departed Congress, as chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Security is Blunt’s inauguration obsession. “My principal goal would be that as people safely leave the inauguration, they felt like they had all the security they needed and all of the freedom that was possible in a crowd of 750,000 people,” he said, adding that he has been meeting for about seven months on a regular basis with Capitol Police and other security officials.
The threat of terrorism, of course, is ever present. But lesser debacles are also on his mind. Blunt, 67, said he wants to avoid a repeat of a 2009 security fiasco that left some inauguration attendees — those holding purple tickets — stuck in a highway tunnel that became known as the “Purple Tunnel of Doom,” while they awaited admission to their seating area.
Among those denied entry: grandchildren of Robert F. Kennedy and the mayor of Seattle. “Survivors” formed a Facebook group. Inaugural Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, issued an apology.
Blunt, a former high school history teacher, wants to remain comfortably in the background and help Trump make history without such mishaps.
But threats abound. Protesters will descend on the city. Many will participate the following day in a “Women’s March on Washington.” The organizers are hostile to the president-elect because, they say, he “insulted, demonized, and threatened” many of them during his election campaign.
Any gaffes will be noticed. “You know, 40 million people will watch this event live and tens of millions more people will watch it in other ways all over the world,” Blunt said.
So he is sweating the details. Blunt announced last month that a painting by the 19th-century Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, “Verdict of the People,” will hang in Statuary Hall during the luncheon that follows Trump’s swearing-in. It features an election official reading results to a crowd. The St. Louis Art Museum is loaning it to Congress for the occasion.
The painting will provide a natural lead-in to Blunt’s remarks at the luncheon, another duty of the senator serving as master of ceremonies. Expect Blunt to bring a historian’s perspective to the day.
Blunt finds poignancy in the transfer of power that goes beyond the anointing of a new president. He said when President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were leaving the White House, he caught himself glancing at the outgoing presidents as the new president was being sworn-in: “I found myself both times looking almost immediately at them and wondering what it was like to suddenly have that obligation lifted.”
When he participated, last September, in the First Nail ceremony that launches the construction of the inaugural stage, he called it “one of the most important temporary jobs done by the Architect of the Capitol,” and noted that the stage would be filled with congressional dignitaries on Jan. 20 while a massive crowd on the National Mall looks on.
Blunt will be sitting among them, his reward for a mostly thankless job.
He knows that Trump’s big victory in the Show Me State last November — taking 57 percent of the vote — helped him hang on to his seat following a challenge from Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state. Kander, a Democrat, hammered Blunt for standing by Trump, even after The Washington Post released a video of Trump boasting about groping women.
Blunt said the issue was a distraction from the important policy issues in the election and Missourians gave him a second term with a 49 percent to 46 percent victory.