To find specifically American cultural statements early inaugurals, you have to look to culture with a small c, to the populist spectacle, the parades and unscripted democratic chaos that flowed through the streets and sometimes into the drawing rooms. By the time of William Henry Harrison’s 1841 inauguration, parades were already functioning as American Expositions in motion. “A goddess of liberty and a ship of war” were featured in James Buchanan’s 1857 inauguration, according to one account, and later ones included not just the display of the latest military technology, but also floats that popularized the expansion of the United States, through war and the acquisition of new states. Geronimo paraded in front of Teddy Roosevelt.
Newspapers recorded almost every inauguration spectacle as “the largest yet” or “grandest ever.” But first-hand accounts also record a perennial tendency to mob behavior, stampedes for food and drink, riotous indulgence. If the parade demonstrated the abundance and strength of the nascent nation, the balls and obsessively detailed protocol during the inauguration itself — early programs devote the bulk of attention to a strict order of march and hierarchical patterns of procession and seating — showed not just power in action, but power attempting to chasten a still vulgar, impetuous and disorderly people.
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The contemporary era
But by the time of Eisenhower’s inaugurations in the 1950s, something was changing. Television crews were patrolling the festivities, looking for jubilant faces, coaxing smiles for the cameras. And at his first inauguration, in 1953, a high school band from Mississippi mistakenly performed its routine facing the television cameras, not the president, an early indication of how the camera would reshape the cultural message of the inaugural festivities, shifting the emphasis from size and grandeur to visual choreography and packaged spectacle.
The easy coexistence of popular and high culture was also fraying. Ike liked good tunes, but his second inaugural concert also included a piece called “Declaration,” a 30-minute oratorio by Morton Gould for orchestra and chorus. It began with a passacaglia — in which a repeated bass line underpins musical elaboration — and ended with a fugue — in which multiple voices are woven together — and included a musical setting of the Declaration of Independence. Its time-tested and shopworn classical forms enacted in an audible way the underlying unity and diversity of democracy.
But the piece disappeared from the repertoire. The rise of new forms of popular music, and the decline of amateur music-making, made Americans deaf to the age-old messages of passacaglia and fugue embedded in Gould’s oratorio.
When Kennedy invited Frost and Anderson to be part of the proceedings on the presidential platform, he wasn’t just showing respect to the arts. He had carefully chosen brand-tested, household names. He was honoring arts celebrity as much as art itself.
Kennedy’s precedent for poetry didn’t immediately take hold. Leontyne Price sang during the inaugural ceremony for Lyndon B. Johnson, but there was no poem. And future presidents may have wondered if poets were too countercultural after Robert Lowell turned down an invite to the Johnson White House, and publicized the snub with a letter about Vietnam printed in the New York Times. It was 32 years until Bill Clinton renewed the tradition by inviting Maya Angelou to recite at his 1993 inauguration — a poem that reveled in lists, as if the unruly crowds of yesteryear were being reformed, in literary style, to populate the scripted ceremony: