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As chair of Trump inauguration, Blunt tries to put it in context of history, tradition

December 19, 2016 GMT

WASHINGTON • With history on his mind, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt will be watching up close the shift of power from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, and the awesome burdens and democratic significance that converge on that moment.

Blunt, who like Trump won a tough election in November, chairs the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the first Missourian to hold the post since Congress assumed responsibility for the inauguration in 1901.

A former history teacher, Blunt has been reading up on previous inaugurations — particularly Abraham Lincoln’s second in 1865 at the end of a long Civil War. During the ceremonies, Blunt will handle introductions and escort dignitaries, never more than a few feet away from the outgoing and incoming presidents.

The world will see something rare and remarkable and uniquely American: the peaceful transition of government from one political party to another, even after a bitter election that consumed almost two years.

Blunt was near center stage on the inaugural platform when the presidency changed parties in both 2001 and 2009, and one impression of the outgoing and incoming presidents stuck the deepest.

“One of the more remarkable moments to me is just imagining the burden of the presidency, of what could be happening right up to the minute you are no longer president that you would be responsible to respond to,” Blunt said. “That is the moment when I always look at the new president, and then I look over at the president who is no longer the president, and I wonder what kind of relief must come over that person at that time.”

By virtue of Blunt’s position, this year’s inaugural ceremony and the post-swearing in luncheon for the new president will have distinct Missouri imprints. Besides Blunt acting as, essentially, the emcee, a chorale from Missouri State University will sing.

At a small luncheon honoring Trump and involving congressional leaders in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall afterward, a painting by 19th-century Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham will be featured.

“Verdict of the People,” is the third of Bingham’s trilogy on American politics and elections, a complicated work symbolizing the strife and rough politics of an era of even greater political and social turmoil than the current one. Blunt announced the selection of the painting in St. Louis on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., stands with the painting “Verdict of the People” during a press conference on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, at the St. Louis Art Museum to announce the painting will be brought to Washington D.C. for the inaugural luncheon. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Blunt helped choose the painting after a visit to the St. Louis Art Museum, where it is part of the permanent collection. Painted in the mid-1850s by Bingham, who came west with his slave-owning family as a young boy, it purports to illustrate an election in rural Missouri.

Bingham, who had earlier served in the Missouri Legislature, painted “Verdict” with symbolic images of slavery, the temperance movement and women’s struggles for the right to vote.

The fresh look at this painting and the period it represents seems apropos to a moment in which Americans are divided over the 2016 election results. Trump approaches his Jan. 20 inauguration as a polarizing figure promising to “make America great again.” Bingham’s painting was finished as the country was hurtling toward Civil War, in a period of greater tempest, inequality and conflict.

“Bingham himself said … he wanted to portray liberty as it appears in the matters of a free people and free institutions,” said Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art at the St. Louis Art Museum. “Liberty is tricky, and elections are tricky. They leave us open to vulnerabilities. And yet, hopefully, we are strong enough to accommodate them.”

To prepare, Blunt also is reading accounts of the 1801 inaugural, which marked the first transfer of power between political parties. Thomas Jefferson had defeated incumbent John Adams, but only after 36 ballots in the House of Representatives. It was the first test of whether the new republic could withstand one political party’s willingly giving up power to another. Adams didn’t show up, but the republic survived.

Jefferson declared: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”

Blunt refers to that passage and one by Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address, in which the new president described the peaceful transfer of power as both “commonplace” and “miraculous,” as evidence of the power of inaugural moments.

“That, better than anything else, describes what happens, and frankly how important that it is to our country and the rest of the world as they watch it,” Blunt said of Reagan’s observations about the peaceful transition of power.

Can Trump, not known for historical references or respect for political opponents, meet the challenge?

“I do [think so], and I think the inaugural moment lends itself to that,” Blunt responded. Referring to Jefferson’s 1800 election, he added: “I guarantee that this election wasn’t more divisive or nastier than that one was.”

“I think both President-elect Trump and President Obama have conducted themselves publicly, and I believe privately with each other since the election, exactly as you would hope people who have such a different view of the government,” Blunt said.

The taxpayer cost for the inauguration itself, including the construction of a platform capable of holding 1,600 people, and extra security cost for the National Park Service, will run north of $6 million, with millions more spent on security by the Pentagon and other agencies, if the 2013 inaugural is any blueprint.

The platform is designed to hold all 535 members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court and other dignitaries.

Congressional staff offices will soon be handing out, collectively, 240,000 tickets for people who want close-in views of the ceremonies on the Capital Grounds. Blunt said another half million or more might come to occupy more distant spots on the Mall that don’t require tickets.

There will be rehearsal run-throughs to try to avoid the kind of mix-ups that occurred in 2009 when Chief Justice John Roberts administered a second oath of office to Obama after concern that they’d bungled the official one on stage.

All this planning doesn’t include the inaugural balls and other events that surround the swearing-in and speech. They will be paid for through private donations and could cost an additional $70 million, according to some press reports. They are being planned by a separate committee chaired by Trump’s long-time business partner, Thomas Barrack Jr.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Blunt is privy to threats against major events of state such as this. But he said it was important for the ritual to be open and accessible.

“I will be relieved when everybody leaves safely and once again the United States has been an example of what a democracy should be,” Blunt said.