Few people have witnessed history like Charlie Brotman. The 81-year-old Washington, D.C., native has served as the official announcer for every Inauguration parade since 1957, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to J.F.K. to both Bushes. From his home in D.C., Brotman spoke with TIME about how the parade reflects the President, why you don't mess around with the Secret Service, and what the city can expect with up to 2 million visitors. (See pictures of the best Obama Inaugural merchandise.)
How did you first land this gig?
I was the stadium announcer at the old Griffith Stadium in 1956. On opening day, it's tradition here in Washington for the President of the United States to throw out the first ceremonial pitch. So as the announcer, I was down on the field. President Eisenhower was there to do the honors, and I had chatted with him for a couple of minutes. In November of that same year, I got a call from a woman who said, "Hi, I'm calling from the White House. You must have impressed somebody, because they asked me if I'd find you to see if you'd like to introduce the President again." I said, "Boy, what a thrill! Absolutely! Just tell me when and where." And she said, "Well, the where is Pennsylvania Avenue and the when is Jan. 20, 1957. You're going to be the President's announcer." Then she asked, "Will you charge a fee? Because our parade budget is very minimal." And I said, "No, as a matter of fact, to be honest, I'd pay you for the honor."
And you've been a shoo-in for the job ever since?
At the start, they contacted me, and for the next, oh, I'd say three or four Inaugurals, somebody [from the new Administration] always called me. They never asked me if I'm a Republican or a Democrat or an independent. They never asked who I voted for, nothing like that. It was always just, "Hey, are you the guy who did it last time?" Because we have a new group of people every four years and 90% of them have never put on a parade before, much less an Inaugural parade. I guess it was in the '80s or '90s that I'd wait until about six weeks before the Inaugural parade was to take place before I'd contact a mover, a shaker or a decision maker to say, "Hey, I'm here if you need me." And anytime I make myself known, it's like, "God, can you get over here right away?! Can we pick your brain?!" And I'm saying, "Well, there ain't much left, but you can have it." [Laughs.] (See pictures of Sasha and Malia Obama at the inauguration.)
So what does the President's announcer do exactly?
Before my first parade, one of the chairmen of the Inaugural committees said to me, "Charlie, you're the President's announcer, aren't you?" And I said, "Yes sir." And he said, "You know why they call you that?" I said, "Not really." "Well," he said, "The vantage point of the President is at the street level. He can't really see that good as to what's coming and what's going. But he's listening to you. So when you say, 'The U.S. Marine Corps Band is now advancing to the presidential reviewing stand,' he knows when to stand, when to sit, when to salute." And I said to him, "You know what? I wish you hadn't told me." [Laughs.]
How does the President's personality or the country's mood affect the parade?
Take Dwight Eisenhower. He was a military man with a no-nonsense personality, so it was a very conservative parade. Basically, he said, "Look, each state will be limited one float, one band and one military unit, and that's it. No big deal." And it wasn't. The parade took just two hours.
In 1961, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, here the power was passing to younger hands. It was now top hats, high-fashion; it was incredible. The President and his brother Robert were in this open reviewing stand, and it was 28 degrees, and Ms. Kennedy stayed for about an hour and then decided, "It's too cold for me, I'm going home," and went back to the White House. Smart woman. [Laughs.] (See pictures of JFK's early years.)
What I remember most that year was thinking it was a miracle that there was a parade at all. The night before D.C. had [had] a snowstorm accumulating six inches! So that night the Inaugural committee had 3,000 servicemen, 700 trucks, 100 snowplows, even Army flame throwers working all night. When it was time for the parade, anywhere and everywhere you looked there were at least six inches of snow, but on Pennsylvania Avenue, it was clear as a bell.