Barack Obama’s first inauguration, four years ago, wasn’t the most Jewish presidential inauguration ever: That honor goes to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 swearing-in, when Rabbi Nelson Glueck, president of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, gave the first benediction in Hebrew on the Capitol steps, a tradition that continued until 1985. But the 2009 festivities still featured a marked outpouring of Jewish feeling.
There was an unofficial inaugural ball at Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox congregation that bills itself as “the national synagogue,” and a reception at the Capital Hilton, down the street from the White House, sponsored by AIPAC, the Jewish Federations, and the National Jewish Democratic Council, among others. Outside, a silver BMW sat parked with an Obama ’08 bumper sticker in Hebrew, while inside, David Axelrod kvelled on behalf of his grandparents, and the actress Debra Winger wept with joy. At the National Prayer Service the day after his swearing-in, Obama was blessed in Hebrew by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center and in English by the Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan, who weathered a stern rebuke from his own movement for praying inside the National Cathedral.
This year, the Jewish parties have been replaced by staid panel discussions and quiet community-service events at synagogues in Washington and around the country, in keeping with Obama’s call for a national day of service commemorating Martin Luther King Day. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) will host a private event for donors featuring Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at an office overlooking the inaugural parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue. Rabbi Lookstein, according to his office, will not be making a repeat appearance at the National Cathedral event. A general frustration with the politics of Obama’s first term—on everything from the Middle East to Obamacare—may have something to do with it, but the president himself has called for a low-key celebration, cutting down to just two official balls from 10 in 2009. “It’s a second inaugural, and the buzz is different,” said David Harris, the president of the NJDC. “In 2009, Americans wanted to welcome this young, good-looking president, but now, five years later, it seems passé.”
But there will be one Jewish constant to Monday’s proceedings: Charlie Brotman, a retired sports announcer who has been the voice of every inaugural parade since President Eisenhower’s second in 1957. “The Secret Service says, that Charlie Brotman, he’s so good, he can have the job as long as he wants to,” Brotman, now 85, said in a phone interview as he prepared for his 16th outing in the announcer’s booth. “When I reach 120, I’ll retire.”
Brotman isn’t a political person, he says, and sees his role as a patriotic duty. He grew up kosher in the back of a grocery run by his Russian Jewish immigrant parents in northeast Washington and enrolled at the city’s National Academy of Broadcasting in 1948 after completing his service in the Navy. That winter, organizers for Harry Truman’s inauguration—the first to be televised—came to the school looking for broadcast announcers and gave Brotman his first official gig. “It was like a class assignment,” he remembered.
Almost a decade later, after a stint as a disc jockey in Orlando, Fla., Brotman returned home as the new announcer for the Washington Senators baseball team. On opening day, in April of 1956, he welcomed Eisenhower, who was throwing out the first pitch against the Yankees. “I raced home and said to my wife Sada, ‘Mickey Mantle, the world’s most famous player, couldn’t move out of the dugout until I told him to, and the president of the United States couldn’t do anything until I told him it was time to throw out the first ball,’ ” Brotman recounted.
A few months later, Brotman got a call from Eisenhower’s office to see if he’d be available to reprise his announcing role for the inaugural parade in January. “At the time, I thought it was kind of a fun thing,” Brotman said. “I thought it would be a one-time shot, and that would be the end of it.” But four years later, when Kennedy’s team was planning his inaugural parade, organizers who had inherited their Rolodexes from Eisenhower’s staff called him back for a reprise. “They looked in the files and saw my name as the announcer,” Brotman said. “They called and said, ‘Are you the guy?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’m the guy.’ ”
Kennedy, Brotman said, now ranks among his favorite presidents to work for, along with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “They had the best personalities, and they had the best parades,” he said, though Reagan’s second inaugural parade, in 1985, had to be moved indoors in order to keep visiting squads of scantily clad California cheerleaders warm in the midst of an arctic cold front. “They weren’t prepared, and Reagan said we have to do something because these kids have spent months fundraising to come here,” Brotman recalled.
This year, Brotman said he’s looking forward to a children’s circus that will be on unicycles, and he expressed a bit of hometown pride in anticipation of a Martin Luther King birthday tribute by Washington’s Ballou Senior High School. “Obama’s not the flashy variety,” Brotman told me. “He doesn’t get into the celebration of movie stars as much as some presidents. He’s interested in giving young people an opportunity to be in the parade.”
As in previous years, Brotman will be seated several stories above Pennsylvania Avenue, directly across from the presidential reviewing stand, and it will be his commands that alert the president and his entourage about when to sit, when to stand, and when to put his hand over his heart of salute. “The president is at street level and can only see what’s in front of him,” Brotman explained. “I can see what’s coming.”
After so many years, though, Brotman said he doesn’t get nervous. “I enjoy doing it—it’s light, it’s casual.” He has now outlived national television fixtures like Dick Clark. But he routinely contends with conditions in his announcing booth that are far harsher than anything his peer Bob Eubanks, the longtime host of the annual New Year’s Day Rose Parade, faces in Southern California: Subzero temperatures and snow are regular features of Inauguration Day, and both are predicted again for this year. “I’ll wear two or three layers or thermal underwear and three or four other layers,” Brotman said. What about some soup? “I’ll have hot tea,” he told me. “That’s what I have, hot tea.”
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