Many of us are familiar with the traditions of Inauguration Day: the meeting of the incoming and outgoing presidents at the White House, the procession to the Capitol, the oath, the address, the parade, the balls. While everything that takes place on Inauguration Day might seem like clockwork, a closer look reveals that our presidential inaugurations have varied over the years — and this year may be different yet. With the festivities almost underway, it’s worth examining a few widely shared misconceptions about inaugurations.
Recent presidents have taken a friendly approach to transferring power, and President Obama has promised to do the same for President-elect Donald Trump. After all, “close cooperation with the outgoing administration” is, according to CNN, a key component of a successful transition.
But many of our transitions have been less than harmonious.
Neither John Adams, in 1801, nor his son John Quincy Adams, in 1829, seems to have been a very good loser: Neither attended the inauguration of his successor. John Adams was bitter about the 1800 election and considered his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, a radical, while John Quincy Adams, along with many in the Washington establishment, considered Andrew Jackson and his followers to be lowlifes.
In 1933, there was visible friction between President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Herbert Hoover during their procession to the Capitol. Throughout their automobile ride, whenever Roosevelt tried to speak, Hoover looked straight ahead, ignoring his successor. Roosevelt then decided to grin and wave to the crowd on the way to the Capitol.
Then there was outgoing president Harry S. Truman’s procession to the Capitol with incoming president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Eisenhower’s son John was an Army officer stationed in Korea, but he was pulled off the front lines and brought to Washington for the ceremony. Eisenhower felt that someone was trying to embarrass him by giving his son special privileges. “That makes me look bad,” Eisenhower said to Truman. “Who is the damn fool who brought my son back?” Truman’s response was, “The president of the United States.”
According to a 2009 article in Slate commemorating Obama’s inauguration, until the swearing-in of Grover Cleveland, “presidents arrived at the ceremony with the assumption a Bible would be provided for them,” and “Teddy Roosevelt is the only president who wasn’t sworn in using a Bible,” at least according to official records. Donald Kennon of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society also stated in a 2009 speech that “all presidents save one have sworn the oath on the Bible.” But Roosevelt wasn’t the only president to forgo a Bible at his inauguration, nor did the earliest presidents necessarily expect to use them.
George Washington used a Bible from the St. John’s Masonic lodge in New York at the first inauguration, in 1789. Four subsequent presidents — Warren G. Harding, in 1921; Eisenhower, in 1953; Jimmy Carter, in 1977; and George H.W. Bush, in 1989 — have arranged to have that Bible transported to Washington so they could place their hands on it during their inaugural oaths. Other presidents have also used famous Bibles. Most recently, Obama put his hand on both Abraham Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s Bibles. Most presidents have brought family Bibles to the inaugural ceremony.
But there is no requirement that a Bible play any role at a presidential inauguration, and several presidents have taken office without swearing on one. Records from 1793, 1797 and most of the first half of the 19th century are silent on whether a Bible was used, and in 1825, John Quincy Adams placed his hand on a book of constitutional law instead.
There have also been private inaugural ceremonies when no Bible was used: Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1877; Chester A. Arthur, in 1881; Theodore Roosevelt, in 1901; Calvin Coolidge, in 1923; and Obama, during the second oath at the White House in 2009, after the chief justice botched the words during the public ceremony a day earlier.
Based on Trump’s recent (false) claim that “all the dress shops” in Washington are sold out in advance of his inauguration, one might think the upcoming balls are glamorous events — the kind you would need a “great dress” for. Indeed, there was a time when inaugural balls were the social event of the season, with high-society guests coming to Washington from Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. The attire was impeccable, and the food was divine, often imported from Europe.
That was then. As Nancy Reagan wrote: “The reality is very different: Crowds of people are jammed together, shoulder to shoulder, just standing there; there’s no way you can dance, and it’s so noisy that you can’t even hear the orchestra.” Partly for security reasons, recent official balls have been mostly held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown D.C.
The food isn’t so great, either. Recent inaugural ball cuisine has included pasta primavera, ham-and-cheese sandwiches on dry biscuits, and turkey and pesto on croissants. In 2001, party planners for George W. Bush indicated that the food was being served on “upscale plastic ware.”
Which doesn’t mean inaugural festivities aren’t expensive. Much was made of the price tag of Obama’s 2013 inauguration, which cost some $180 million , but not all of that money paid for balls, parades and celebrity appearances. In fact, inaugural costs are split between private funds, raised by presidential inauguration committees, and taxpayer money, which covers the practical expenses, especially the hefty security bill. This coming week’s inauguration security expenses, for example, are expected to exceed $100 million .
Often only two presidents are remembered for the demonstrations against their inaugurations: Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Antiwar protests targeted both of Nixon’s and were also organized for Bush’s second inauguration in 2005. In 2001, protests focused on the disputed election between Bush and Al Gore.
Next Saturday, the day after Trump’s swearing-in, the Women’s March on Washington will take place. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend. It is reminiscent of another inauguration weekend when women took to the streets of Washington.
In 1913, on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 suffragists marched on Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Capitol to the Treasury Building to draw attention to the cause of giving women the right to vote. Many onlookers were upset, either because they opposed the idea of women voting or because they objected to the timing of the march. Many of the suffragists were insulted, spit upon or even beaten. Because the women had not been protected, the police chief was fired. At the next inauguration, in 1917, suffragists marched in the regular parade. By 1920, all women in the country would have the right to vote.
Roosevelt was elected in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944, and he was inaugurated four separate times. But while the FDR Presidential Library and Museum states that he “was the only American President elected and inaugurated four times,” that’s only half-true.
Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009. Because the oath was flubbed, he was inaugurated a second time the next night in the White House. Four years later, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday. Following tradition, Obama was sworn in privately that day and then took the oath again in a public ceremony Monday. Two in 2009, two more in 2013: Obama ties FDR’s record.