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From Washington to Obama, the inauguration is an American moment

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, at 2 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, at 7:01 p.m.

— Inauguration Days are the times America pauses to appreciate and reflect on the orderly transition, or reaffirmation, of power.

The quadrennial ritual that will take place starting at noon Monday on the Capitol’s West Front promises to be full of new memories, as President Barack Obama will remind the nation of its vision and mission, followed by an afternoon and evening of celebration and reflection. He’ll be continuing a tradition begun by George Washington on April 30, 1789.

"It’s an important ritual as a transition that’s very different from other countries,” said Jim Bendat, author of "Democracy’s Big Day," a history of inaugurations. “But we shouldn’t kid ourselves and think one address will produce a speech for the ages every time."

Chances are the speech won’t match the longest ever. William Henry Harrison delivered an 8,445-word address during a cold rain in 1841. He died a month later. John Adams uttered the longest inaugural speech sentence, 737 words. That was far longer than Washington’s entire second inaugural speech, which at 135 words remains history’s shortest.

Obama’s second inauguration probably won’t produce any major firsts, either.

James Buchanan was first to be photographed, in 1857. Other firsts: Broadcast over loudspeakers: Warren Harding, 1921. Broadcast on radio: Calvin Coolidge, 1925. Television: Harry Truman, 1949. Internet: Bill Clinton, 1997.

First to walk the parade route: Jimmy Carter in 1977, reportedly wearing a $175 suit he bought the previous week in Americus, Ga. Ever since, the president has left his armored limousine and walked at least part of the way.

Of course, Obama was the first African-American ever inaugurated. But that was last time.

The day’s centerpiece, and only real reason for all the hoopla, will remain much the same: The 35-word oath, from Article II, Section I of the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall holds the record for most oaths given, nine.

In an asterisk to history, Obama will become only the second man after Franklin D. Roosevelt to take the oath four times.

Roosevelt was actually elected four times. Obama’s only been elected twice, but two curious turns led to the four oaths.

In 2009, he spoke some words out of order. A concerned White House decided to have Chief Justice John Roberts administer the oath correctly, and he came to the White House Map Room the next evening and swore Obama in again, just to be safe. So the chief justice gave it another try, but still did not get it quite right, omitting the word “execute.”

This time, the date set by the Constitution falls on a Sunday. Obama will take the oath in a small ceremony Sunday at the White House, then take it again Monday at the Capitol.

In 1849, Zachary Taylor would not be sworn in on a Sunday. And so, according to his Plattsburg, Mo., gravestone, Senate President Pro Tem David Rice Atchison was president for a day, according to Bendat. Atchison would later joke his was the most honest administration ever.

Not willing to take a chance, modern presidents facing such a calendar – such as Ronald Reagan in 1985 – have been sworn in at the White House on Sunday, then took the oath again in the full public ceremony at the Capitol the next day.

Until 1981, the ceremony was usually held on the Capitol’s East Portico. Reagan, a former California governor who wanted to look west, moved everything to the other side of the Capitol.

Other traditions have evolved over time. Eliza Garfield was the first mother to witness her son’s inauguration, in 1881. In 1909, Nellie Taft was the first first lady to ride from the Capitol to the White House, and in 1965, Lady Bird Johnson was the first first lady to hold the Bible for the swearing-in.

What presidents want most remembered is their inaugural address, viewed as important calls for national unity, particularly in difficult times.

Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 address, as the Civil War was about to end, is often regarded as the template: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in the midst of the Great Depression, offered a weary nation hope: "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

John F. Kennedy challenged the country in lyrical terms in his 1961 speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Not all speeches were so inspiring. In 1989, George H.W. Bush, hoping to coin a phrase as the Soviet Union was crumbling, declared, “A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on.”

After the formal ceremony comes lunch inside the Capitol, the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the balls – and more public involvement.

John Wilkes Booth came to Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural, tried to break through the crowd and was stopped by police. Six weeks later, he would assassinate the president at Ford’s Theater, about a mile away.

On a lighter note, Dwight Eisenhower was lassoed by a cowboy during the 1953 parade, and Lyndon Johnson is believed to have brought the first dog to the presidential reviewing stand, watching the parade with his beagle in 1965.

Inaugural balls have also had their moments of color. The first in Washington was in 1801, celebrating the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson. The first known snafu came 68 years later, when guests lost their hats, coats and valuables at Ulysses Grant’s disorganized fete.

Grant had no luck with his second ball in 1873, held in a temporary wooden structure. The heat didn’t work, people had to dance with their coats and hats on, and the food froze, according to Bendat.

Nowadays, organizers are sensitive to such concerns. Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural was moved indoors as the noontime temperature was 7 degrees. The early forecast for Monday: a high of 37 in the afternoon, then dropping below freezing at night.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com;Twitter:@lightmandavid

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