Less than one week from today, a new President will be inaugurated. I won’t be watching the ceremony, but that’s nothing new for me. The last Presidential inauguration I watched was in January 1989, when I was home with a newborn baby, and I watched Ronald and Nancy Reagan walk hand-in-hand off into the sunset (OK, it wasn’t the sunset, but you get the idea). It was all carefully staged, and, frankly, I don’t care much for the pomp and circumstance of it. However, looking back at various inaugurations is interesting!
George Washington’s first inauguration wasn’t even held in Washington, D.C. – because there was no Washington, D.C. in 1789. Instead, he was inaugurated on the steps of a beautiful old business in the Wall Street district of New York City (today, there is a statue there to commemorate the event).
By the time the third President, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in, there was a federal capital; Jefferson walked down to the Capital building, was sworn in, then walked home. He, too, disliked big ceremonies, but he also recognized how bitter the 1800 campaign had been (the outgoing President – and loser of the 1800 election- John Adams left town before the ceremony), and decided to keep a low profile. (Ah, a lesson in there, perhaps?)
But John Adams was not the first outgoing Chief Executive to skip town to avoid greeting his successor. Our 17th President, Andrew Johnson, also moved out of the city before the new President, Ulyssses S. Grant, took the oath of office. Of course, Andrew Johnson had been accused of being drunk when he was sworn in as Lincoln’s Vice-President in March of 1865, and then had been impeached by Congress, so there weren’t a lot of people he wanted to see in Washington by March of 1869.
The inauguration set for March of 1877 had its own set of challenges. The 1876 contest between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was so close that even the electoral college could not decide a winner: there were disputed votes in Florida and Louisiana. A congressional commission was established to investigate and try to determine the winner, but in the beginning of February of 1877, when it was time to send out invitations to the Inaugural ceremony and related events, the printer had to write to Congress to ask whose name he should put on the invitations! This seemed to be the spark that Congress moving, though, and the Republican, Hayes, was declared the winner by the commission.
Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, though, it has become customary that the outgoing President ride to the Capitol with the incoming President. George H.W. Bush, gracious and well-mannered, admits he actually enjoyed that ride with his successor, Bill Clinton, and the two men have since forged a firm friendship. But there was one such ride that was not so enjoyable: in March of 1933, the outgoing President, Herbert Hoover, rode to the Capitol with the man who had beat him in the 1932 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover refused to speak to the sociable FDR for the whole trip; rather than just sit there (it was an open limousine), FDR started waving to the crowds of citizens lined up on Constitution Avenue. This was unprecedented, and some critics called it undignified, but FDR’s infectious grin captivated the tense Americans (the Depression was getting worse, not better); unlike the dour Hoover, FDR seemed to be thrilled to be taking on the burdens of office. I wonder what Barack Obama will have to say to his successor next week?