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Johnny Vardeman: Gainesville man a veteran of presidential inaugurations
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With a name like Woodrow Wilson Golden Jr., no wonder he’s interested in presidential history.

Besides, the Gainesville man has attended seven presidential inaugurations and worked in the administration of former President Bill Clinton.

The only explanation he has for his name is that his father, Woodrow Wilson Golden Sr., was born in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson was in office. Wilson served from 1913-21. It apparently wasn’t unusual to name family members after political figures because he has ancestors named after Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson.

Golden Jr. was born in 1948 and was surrounded by family who were active in politics, including his father and two uncles. They also were students of history, and he has followed in their footsteps.

A native of Holly Springs, Miss., Golden was a page for his congressman, Jamie Whitten, in 1962 at age 14. Whitten, who served from 1941-95, at the time was the longest serving member of the U.S. House.

If he wasn’t already turned on to politics, that trip to Washington did it for Golden. It was his first time on an airplane and first time out of Mississippi.

As a teenager, he remembers keenly presidential inaugurations as far back as John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, but the first one he actually attended was Jimmy Carter’s in 1977. He had been a Carter delegate in the Democratic National Convention.

Carter’s inauguration day, Golden remembers, was very icy and cold. He retreated to his hotel to get warm. That ceremony, he says, was the last time it was held on the east front of the U.S. Capitol. The Carters broke precedent by walking with his entourage from the Capitol to the White House, a mile and a half.

Ronald Reagan’s inauguration was moved to the west front, where they have been conducted since. Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 was the warmest, and the 1985 inauguration was the coldest. In fact, so cold at 7 degrees it had to be moved to the Capitol rotunda for the public ceremony. A private swearing-in had been held in the White House the day before because the actual date fell on a Sunday.

Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 also was a cold day, Golden said, recalling he wore plenty of clothes that day. It was the first time the National Mall was opened its entire length for people to observe an inauguration.

George W. Bush’s first inauguration in 2001 was a nasty day, too, Golden said, with slushy sleet covering the ground and streets. He remembers a reception in the Senate Office Building before the swearing-in seeing legendary longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in a wheelchair. Golden didn’t stay for the ceremony, instead opting for television and the warmth of a nearby hotel bar.

Speaking to a forum at the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University recently, Golden pointed out that there were no actual public inaugurations for five presidents. And although Donald Trump is the 45th president, there have been 58 inaugurations. Trump is the 44th person to serve as president because Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president, having lost to Benjamin Harrison after his first term.

As for the controversy over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, Golden laughs it off, declaring that there are more important questions to debate. He didn’t watch the live ceremony on television, opting instead for a hiking trip to Toccoa Falls.

Inaugurations are a celebration of democracy, he says. Political parties in power come and go, and the changing of the guard demonstrates the great continuity in the leadership of the country.

Golden spent 21 years in Washington, getting to know Clinton and serving as one of his convention delegates in 1992. In the 1980s, he worked as a lawyer with local and state governments.

He retired to Gainesville in 2014 for no particular reason.

“We picked it because it’s a nice place, and I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “There is no particular connection to this area.”

But it is about halfway between his former homes in Washington and Mississippi. However, through genealogical study, he has since learned he has had relatives living in North Georgia.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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