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A history of presidential inaugurations

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Jim Bendat is an expert on U.S. presidential inauguration history, and has written the book “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2013.” Bendat spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Can you reflect on some of your favorite leadership moments from past inaugurations?

My favorite leadership moments are those inaugurations which served to heal the nation. Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801 marked the first real change of power in Washington. Jefferson became president after a bitter election, and during his inaugural address — in an attempt to bring the nation together — he declared, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” Then in March of 1865, in his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” a phase that he used to indicate that the Civil War was ending and we were going to come back together.  Finally, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president during the Great Depression. He showed leadership when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

What common leadership themes have emerged in inaugural addresses?

In an inaugural address, you are going to have generalities about religion and faith, doing good deeds and working together. In actuality, most are not memorable. Exactly 100 years ago, the magazine called The Economist wrote that “the presidents of the United States have gotten into the habit of emptying a load of words into the streets and calling them inaugural addresses. These monstrosities were probably the work of secretaries, assistant secretaries and short hand writers.”  And that was their amusing way of saying that the inaugural addresses normally aren’t that much.

What is it that made John F. Kennedy's inaugural address stand out? 

It was his delivery, his phraseology — and he addressed all the right people. Kennedy addressed the nation, saying we’ve got to work together when he said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He addressed our allies and our adversaries. He was poignant and strong and his timing was impeccable. 

What is the interaction between the outgoing and incoming presidents on inauguration day?

Normally it’s extremely cordial. There’s the tradition of getting together at the White House for coffee, and then there’s the procession from the White House to the Capitol. There are only a handful of interactions where there was a problem. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a conflict, because at the time Adams considered Jefferson to be a radical. President John Quincy Adams viewed Andrew Jackson and his followers as a bunch of low-lifes, so he didn’t attend the 1829 inauguration. In 1933, we had the situation with Franklin Roosevelt and President Herbert Hoover, and it’s clear from all the pictures of the procession that there was an issue. In some of them, Roosevelt is turning towards Hoover to try to have an animated conversation, other times he is smiling or waving to the crowd, but in every picture, Hoover’s just staring straight ahead ignoring Roosevelt. There was no conversation, and nothing coming from Hoover at all.

What are some inauguration traditions?

In 1789, George Washington was sworn in, gave an inaugural address and that was it. The first official inaugural ball wasn’t held until 1809 with James Madison. The procession of the old and the new began in 1837 with Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. The inaugural parade was sort of an evolution, starting with spontaneous parades for Thomas Jefferson. Women used to have no role at all. Now the first lady holds the bible, a tradition that only began in 1965 with Lady Bird Johnson. 

Another tradition has been the use of the words, “So help me God,” at the end of the presidential oath. There’s a myth that George Washington added those words to the end of his oath in 1789. No one back in 1789 ever suggested that, but we do know that by many accounts that Chester Arthur in 1881 added those four words and that those words were not added in 1929 by Herbert Hoover. Beginning with FDR in 1933, every president has added those four words.

What are some of your favorite inauguration stories?

Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration is what inspired me to write my book. Coolidge became president after the death of Warren Harding in 1923. And at the time of Harding’s death, Coolidge was visiting his father at a cottage in Vermont without running water, electricity or a telephone. In the middle of the night, a courier arrived saying that Harding had passed away. Shortly after that another courier arrived and said the new president must be sworn in as soon as possible. So his father John Coolidge, a notary public, administered the oath of office by the light of an old kerosene lantern at 2:47 in the morning in the family parlor.

A great piece of trivia involves Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had four inaugurations, and Barack Obama. We are about to see President Obama tie FDR’s record of four inaugurations. Obama already had two when, four years ago, the first oath was botched by Chief Justice Roberts and redone the next day. This year, because January 20 falls on a Sunday, a private inauguration will be held and then a public one on Monday, January 21. That’s technically four inaugurations. He ties FDR.

 

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