The 1993 Inaugural: Dr. Maya Angelou’s Poem

- January 21, 2013

"I was mesmerized by her voice, her words, her outpouring heart. The end of the poem is no less inspiring today"

In 1993, I served as the network pool attorney on behalf of CNN for Bill Clinton’s Inauguration ceremonies. What that meant was the wonderful CNN Washington Bureau Chief Bill Headline, who was predestined by his name to be a journalist, and I negotiated on behalf of all the networks and all media the agreements with the US Park Service and other such entities that permitted the media to park their trailers and trucks on the White House grounds, lay thousands of feet of cable along the parade route and all over the city, post cameras in every imaginable location, set up port-o-potties, build risers, you name it. I remember the Park Service Agreement included nearly a page of penalties for nicking one of those historic trees.

The day of the Inaugural was icy cold. I spent most of the morning keeping warm in the CNN trailer attending to the odd detail, but what I was really waiting for was the advance copy of the poem Dr. Maya Angelou had written specifically for the ceremonies. She would be only the second poet to read a poem at an Inaugural. As a kid I watched Robert Frost read his poem for the 1961 Inauguration of John Kennedy. I love poetry and admire Dr. Angelou, so this was a special moment for me.

I decided to take a walk for one last look at the setting for the Inaugural. I don’t care what your party affiliation or beliefs are, seeing the podium where the oath will be administered, watching as former leaders and the famous take their seats behind the podium, looking out at the sea of chairs where more dignitaries are being seated with thousands of people standing quietly waiting behind them, is simply awe inspiring.

As you face the podium, to the right are the risers where media still photographers stand to take those photographs that will become ingrained in history. I saw someone I knew and walked over to say hello. Before I knew it, an official looking someone came through asking us all whether we were network photographers. It was time to stay or exit quickly. I rationalized that, yes, I am with CNN, and, yes, I take photos now and again, so I said yes I am a network photographer and stayed put.

I watched as Bill Clinton and his family were seated. I watched the oath of office administered. As I was listening to now President Clinton’s address, I see a CNNer crouch down at the end of my riser, hand a piece of paper to the man at the end and point to me. I swear I thought I was about to receive a note saying, “Come quick! We killed a tree!” Instead, the paper was the advance copy of the poem, a poem Dr. Angelou titled “On the Pulse of Morning.”

A few minutes later, Dr. Angelou walked with her perfect posture in her dark blue coat and her mile wide smile to the podium. As I held my paper and read along, she began in that distinctive voice:

“A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.”

I was mesmerized by her voice, her words, her outpouring heart. The end of the poem is no less inspiring today:

“The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.”