Past inaugurations have produced many memorable moments

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The inauguration of the first African-American president will long be remembered as a momentous day in history, but many past inaugurals also have had memorable moments.

Even Barack Obama's arrival in the nation's capital aboard a special train recalls his fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln's similar train ride in 1861. Lincoln had to travel the last part of the trip at night because of an assassination threat in Baltimore.

Inaugurals are a mixture of pomp, festivity and gravity, the American equivalent of a coronation. Their rituals are laden with symbols of national purpose, continuity and unity. For 220 years, they've marked the peaceful transfer of power, a feat that few other countries have achieved.

Presidents have tinkered with the ceremony to reflect their personal style and the state of the nation. There've been top hats and bare heads, cheers and boos along parade routes, unruly mobs in the White House, poets and preachers, brilliant sunshine and bitter cold, glamorous balls and tragic circumstances

Almost always the day has featured a solemn swearing-in, an inaugural address, one or more parades, plus parties, receptions and fancy balls far into the night.

The heart of the affair is the inaugural oath, first recited by George Washington on the balcony of New York's Federal Hall, the original seat of government, on April 30, 1789.

The 35-word oath is prescribed in the Constitution, but Washington added the phrase ``so help me God'' and placed his left hand on a Bible hastily borrowed from a Masonic Lodge on Wall Street. Most later presidents have followed the founding father's precedent.

Washington's successor, John Adams, took the oath in Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Thomas Jefferson did it in the new Senate chamber in the District of Columbia in 1801. James Monroe moved the ceremony outside to the East Front of the Capitol in 1817.

It remained there until 1981, when Ronald Reagan switched it to the Capitol's West Front as a giant stage prop for his inauguration.

Subzero temperatures drove Reagan inside the Capitol building in 1985 for his second oath-taking and forced the cancellation of his parade, disappointing 12,000 marchers, 66 floats and 57 bands.

Jefferson and Andrew Jackson showed their common touch by eschewing carriages and walking up Capitol Hill to be sworn in. Jimmy Carter delighted the crowd and horrified the Secret Service by leaving his armored limousine after the swearing-in and strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife and children to the White House. Both sets of Bushes and the Clintons walked part of the way at their inaugurals as well.

Until Benjamin Harrison's 1889 inauguration, the parades usually moved UP the hill to the Capitol. Since then, they've flowed DOWN the hill past the White House reviewing stand. Some grander parades lasted well into darkness.

After his 1829 parade, Jackson opened the White House to thousands of his hungry and thirsty followers, who tracked in mud, broke windows and wrecked furniture. After Lincoln's second inaugural in 1865, unruly guests stole silver and draperies.

There've been awkward moments between incoming and outgoing presidents. Adams boycotted Jefferson's inauguration in 1801. Ulysses Grant refused to ride in the same carriage as Andrew Johnson in 1869. Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt drove to the Capitol in chilly silence in 1933.

Not all inaugurals have been joyous occasions. Johnson took the oath in his boardinghouse the day after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in in 1901 in Buffalo, N.Y., where William McKinley had died earlier that day.

A grim-faced Lyndon Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One on the day that John Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963. Gerald Ford took the oath in the East Room of the White House after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974.

Ever since Washington, most presidents have launched their terms with formal addresses, usually calling for national reconciliation and setting out their visions for the future.

Washington and Adams gave their inaugural speeches in person. Jefferson and a century of his successors sent theirs to Congress in writing. Woodrow Wilson renewed the personal address in 1913.

Some inaugural addresses have etched lines in the national memory:

  • Jefferson: ``We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.''
  • Lincoln: ``With malice toward none, with charity for all, (let us) bind up the nation's wounds.''
  • Franklin Roosevelt: ``The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
  • Kennedy: ``Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.''
  • Gerald Ford: ``Our long national nightmare is over.''

At Kennedy's snow-swept inaugural in 1961, the glare of the sun and a stiff breeze kept Robert Frost from reading a poem he'd written for the occasion. Vice President Johnson tried to shade the lectern with his top hat, but the 86-year-old poet protested, ``I can't see in this light.'' Instead, he recited from memory one of his earlier poems, ``The Gift Outright.''

William Henry Harrison's 1841 address — an hour and 40 minutes long, delivered without hat or coat on a cold, damp day — turned tragic. The 68-year-old Harrison developed pneumonia and died a month later. His vice president, John Tyler, was sworn in at his hotel and never gave an inaugural address.

The most recent inaugural, George W. Bush's second, was marred by scuffles with protesters. Cries of ``warmonger'' and ``impeach Bush'' clashed with chants of ``USA'' and ``support our troops'' as 13,000 police officers and soldiers stood guard.

After the parade, the president and first lady Laura Bush dropped in on 10 inaugural balls and receptions, a 200 year-old tradition.

James and Dolley Madison hosted the first inaugural ball in 1809. Most presidents have followed suit, except for the prudish Wilson, who canceled ball plans in 1913 and 1917; the reticent Calvin Coolidge, who just went to bed in 1925; and Franklin Roosevelt, who staged no balls in 1937, 1941 and 1945 because of the Great Depression and World War II.

Carter called his affairs ``parties'' rather than ``balls'' to symbolize a new era of populist simplicity. Bill Clinton tootled the saxophone at one of his balls in 1993.

This year, Obama's whistle-stop train ride from Philadelphia to Washington, picking up Vice President-elect Joe Biden on the way, follows a long line of travels to the capital by incoming presidents. Washington rode his horse and carriage from his beloved home at Mount Vernon to New York. Lincoln whistle-stopped from Springfield, the Illinois capital, where Obama declared his candidacy on Feb. 10, 2007. Clinton took a symbolic bus trip from Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia.

ON THE WEB

The inaugural addresses of former presidents

Audio and video of the inaugural addresses of Presidents Kennedy and others

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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