For many presidential inaugurations, the second time is not the charm

January 15, 2013

It’s not like last time, and everywhere you look, someone wants to remind you of that.

Hotel rooms are still available (not like laaaast time) and there will be only two official inaugural balls (not like laaaast time) and nobody is going to wait for hours in a cattle-packed tunnel, waving their purple tickets. (Last time! So much fun!)

The gargantuan platform affixed to the U.S. Capitol has been growing for weeks, but worriers seem convinced that when Barack Obama steps onto it for his second inauguration, it just won’t feel the same.

“No, there isn’t quite the excitement there is with the first one,” allows Buffy Cafritz, the Washington doyenne who has hosted inaugural parties since 1984. But then again, “I can’t think of a second inauguration that was as exciting as the first,” she says. “You know the man. You know his policies. It’s normal.”

Over at the Presidential Inaugural Committee headquarters, chief executive officer Steve Kerrigan argues that the second time around is equally wonderful — just different. Those two balls will hold nearly as many people as the 10 balls did last inauguration, he explains patiently. “We’re almost doubling the size of the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball.”

Explore events surrounding the inauguration

But still there’s this irritating perception that it’s all a setup to a letdown. It’s one we’ve been struggling with since the beginning of our country: The meaning of the second inauguration. How to summon the energy to do it all again.

Once more (with feeling).

Fizzles for the Founders

The first inauguration of our first president happened in New York. There were cheers, a 13-gun salute, and an eloquent address about the meaning of the office and the future of the United States. The day was merry. The nation was optimistic, and it was brand, brand new.

Four years later, George Washington was elected again. That inauguration happened in Philadelphia. His speech was 135 words. It said, basically, “Here we are again. Now I will take an oath.”

“Things were getting a little more complicated” in the country, says Susan Dunn, a history professor at Williams College. “He was tired.” Exhausted, even. America was not the fresh daisy it once was, and he hadn’t wanted a second term.

Washington knew what the country has spent nearly 250 years learning: Second inaugurations are America renewing its wedding vows to the same man — the ceremony might be great, but you can’t ignore what you already know about the groom: He snores, sniffles and forgot to pay the electric bill last month.

Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration was also a little tired. There was no way to live up to the hype of the first, which was America’s first political party swap and thus a huge historic deal. His second victory was completely predictable, so expectations could be met but hardly be exceeded.

By contrast, James Madison’s second election, in 1812, had been bitterly close, and bitterness was on display at the inauguration. John Marshall, the chief justice tasked with the swearing-in, reportedly smirked throughout the ceremony, showing his displeasure with the president. Madison gave a lackluster address — he was a bad public speaker and regularly bungled social situations.

“The whole thing was just kind of awkward,” says Kevin Gutzman, a Madison biographer. “Then again, whenever you had Madison in a room with lots of people, it was kind of awkward.”

Basically, says Gutzman, “he went through it because we had this precedent that he had to.”

Too tired to stick around

Yes, he had to. And we have to. Not the balls (those were added by Dolley Madison, who was as gregarious as her husband was socially inept), and not the dinners and the parade. But the president must take an oath, because saying it is required by the Con­stitution. Article 2, Section 1, Clause 8.

Even if the president is tired. Even if the people are tired of the president. Second inaugurals are less like clean slates than hastily wiped-down ones: There will be an inevitable reckoning of the vision previously laid out, whether the promises made stayed intact or were broken.

If you look at a list of America’s presidents and their terms, you will notice a large block of one-termers throughout the 19th century. This was not always because the gentlemen couldn’t get elected again. It’s because in some cases — James K. Polk, James Buchanan — the politicians had promised the exhausted American public that they wouldn’t even try.

The Lincoln exception

Of course, there’s a problem with this — this tidy little parable of diminishing returns. The problem’s name is Lincoln.

As any historian or schoolchild or Daniel Day-Lewis fan could tell you, the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration was emotionally charged and politically fraught. Lincoln read the mood beautifully.

“His first inaugural was a long, rational address, directed to the Southern states,” who feared what the election of a Republican president meant to them, says Ron White, a historian and author of “A. Lincoln.” “I mean, it’s fine. But it’s not great.”

Lincoln used words like “compliance.” He talked about “conclusive evidence.” He “reiterated” things. He sounded exactly like the lawyer he was.

His second inaugural address was just 701 words, of which 505 were one syllable. “Usually, second inaugurals tend to be longer — everything from fixing the economy to climate change,” White says. “And they’re also much heavier with one word: I.” Lincoln used the personal pronoun only twice. “One of the triumphs of the Union was that an election could still take place in the middle of the war,” says White. “This was special.”

Now whenever a Lincoln inaugural line is quoted, there’s a better than good chance that it came from the second one, embodying the integrity that the nation so often goes looking for, so infinitely craves: “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.”

Grant’s day to grumble

Never fear. America is not in the habit of allowing its wounds to stay bound for very long.

After Lincoln’s assassination, we made it through Andrew Johnson’s truncated presidency, though we chose not to give him a second term. We did choose to reelect his successor, Ulysses S. Grant.

In those days, Congress went out of session when the president’s term ended, not before, meaning that bills were produced up until last minute. The night before his second inauguration, Grant found himself knocking about the White House, wading through piles of looming legislation.

The work carried over to the next day. Thus, on the morning that Ulysses S. Grant, the Union hero of the Civil War, was set to be sworn in again as the leader of the United States of America, he was lingering over a piddling bill that would allow former president Zachary Taylor’s daughter a monthly pension in the sum of $50.

When Grant did take the podium, he used his address to grumble. “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history,” said the president. “Which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication.”

Nanny-nanny. Boo-boo.

John Marszalek, the executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, is interviewed about Grant’s second inauguration — the paperwork, the hurt feelings, the frigid temperatures that made everyone leave the unheated ball early. “The champagne didn’t flow,” he says. “It got so cold that everyone just went home.”

He e-mails again later, with a final observation about the day’s festivities, or rather the decorative birds at the festivities:

“Some 100 canaries died the day of Grant’s second inauguration.”

At war, keeping it low-key

But such is the presidency. One begins with lofty policy aspirations, one ends up fussing over budget issues. One begins as a messianic hero; one ends up with a pile of dead birds.

The festiveness of an inauguration is tied to the mood of the nation and the events of the world. A leader who has already been in office for four years might view a second go-round as simply a slog that must be endured in order to get back to the business of running the country.

Woodrow Wilson was never much of a partier. He’d nixed inaugural balls for his first inauguration because he thought them too frivolous. But at least the first one was celebratory. The mood was described as “jolly” and “gay.”

That changed four years later. The ghost of an assassinated archduke was winging over the ocean; the United States would enter World War I within weeks. “Washington is not enlivened, it is deadened,” read a newspaper account of the day. “Not excited, but grave and silent.”

But welcome anyhow, Mr. President. Get ready for four more years. Four more years. A reelection chant played in a minor key.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt also became a wartime president — and was elected as a Depression-era one. Crowds thronged to Washington for his first inaugural address; this is when FDR said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

His second inauguration was just as big. “He’d won the largest landslide to date,” says Roosevelt Institute scholar David Woolner, and the country loved him. “Really, he was at his pinnacle for the second inauguration.”

Then he was elected again.

By then, excitement had been tamped down. Sometime after his third election victory, Roosevelt met with Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate he’d defeated. “On Inauguration Day, you’ll probably be at some London pub, thinking about how you’d like to be in Washington taking the oath of office,” he reportedly said. “I’ll be in Washington taking the oath of office — and thinking of how I’d like to be in some London pub.”

Then he was elected again.

For his fourth inauguration, Roosevelt skipped the Capitol entirely. He was sworn in on the White House lawn in front of a crowd of 5,000, down from the usual 25,000. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes.

A memory to hang on to

“I keep thinking of the ‘sacred object’ concept,” says Barbara Perry, a fellow at the the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia. “No matter how sophisticated we think we are, all people need some kind of sacred object that they can go back to and hang onto.”

The inauguration, she says — be it first or second — is that object.

A second inauguration “is still history,” says Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2009. “If you’re looking at it from that perspective — and frankly, if you’re president, history is something you should be looking at it from — that excitement never wanes.”

In recent years, perhaps second inaugurations are getting better. Bill Clinton pumped up the number of balls to a record 14 for his second term. George W. Bush’s second inaugural was absent the Al Gore supporters who had coughed claims of illegitimacy on his first term.

Besides. It is not technically President Obama’s second inauguration, Steve Kerrigan, the inaugural committee CEO, jokingly reminds us all. Not if you want to get picky about it.

After Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. bungled the words during the president’s first oath in 2009 (there was a misplaced “faithfully”), there was a redo a few days later. That was his “second inauguration.” This year, the president will take the oath on Jan. 20, as is required by law. But since the date falls on a Sunday, that ceremony will be private and small. He will repeat the oath on Monday, at the Capitol, for all the world to see.

Thus, the public ceremony will be the fourth inauguration of this president of the United States of America.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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