Allentown
59° F
Clear
Clear

Presidential inaugurations America won't forget

By Stephen Sobek, Staff Writer
Published On: May 11 2011 01:01:48 PM CDT
Updated On: May 22 2011 11:41:43 PM CDT
Michelle, Barack at inauguration

REUTERS/POOL New

When the founding fathers of the United States created the office of the president in the Constitution, they knew there would have to be some sort of ceremony when the executive took office.

But what they didn't want was an elaborate celebration like the coronations of kings and queens in Europe, said presidential inauguration historian Paul F. Boller Jr.

"They didn't want any of that," said Boller, author of "Presidential Inaugurations."

"They did want a nice, dignified (ceremony). They wanted the world to know that they took this new republic seriously."

The Constitution actually says little about the president's inauguration, other than prescribing the oath of office.

So much of what George Washington did at the first inauguration in 1789 became tradition that presidents who followed him repeated. For example, Washington added the "so help me God" to the end of the oath, and most presidents still follow his lead. He also established the tradition of swearing on a Bible.

In 1841, William Henry Harrison delivered a nearly two-hour speech in the bitter cold without a hat or a coat. He caught pneumonia and died just one month later.

"It was so cold that people on the platform were slapping their arms to keep warm," Boller said. "Nobody was listening."

John F. Kennedy was luckier when he was inaugurated in 1961. Although it was also bitterly cold that day, and the new president took off his overcoat to make his speech, he managed to escape catching pneumonia.

The warmest inauguration was Ronald Reagan's first -- it was 55 degrees when he took the oath in 1981. The coldest inauguration was Reagan's second, when the single-digit temperatures forced the event to be moved into the Capitol. Congress actually had to pass a last-minute resolution to give permission for the ceremony to be held in the Rotunda.

But it was at the inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873 that band instruments froze and many military cadets suffered frostbite.

Many of those addresses given by the presidents have faded into obscurity, especially those given before the invention of the microphone, radio or television.

But especially in the 20th century, as media technology developed, some presidents have managed to use the inauguration to capture the imagination of the nation.

Abraham Lincoln tried to start the healing process after the Civil War with his second inaugural speech in 1865, calling for "malice toward none" and "charity for all."

And in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

But Kennedy, in a speech that leaned heavily toward foreign policy during the height of the Cold War, probably delivered the most memorable line: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Boller said some of the themes could be similar as Obama prepares to take the oath. His inaugural speech could also make history.

"This is a big event in American history," Boller said of the election of the first black president. "I would never have dreamed that this would happen."

Boller said he has read every single inaugural address given over the years, and only once did a president elicit laughter with his words. In 1837, a clumsy sentence spoken by Martin Van Buren drew a chuckle.

"The Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth," Van Buren said, adding that he contemplated with "grateful reverence that memorable event."

He was talking about the Revolution, of course, but it sounded to the crowd like he was talking about his own birth.

But possibly the most surprising moment at an inauguration was in 1953, when a cowboy on horseback lassoed President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he sat on a reviewing stand during the inauguration parade. President Andrew Jackson barely escaped a mob of citizens who came to his public reception in 1829. Boller wrote that the people stood on the furniture in muddy boots and fought over food.

And in 1865, Lincoln shook hands with 6,000 people at a reception at the White House. However, the crowd became rambunctious and the police had to be called in to stop people from stealing silverware and china.