That new president was Calvin Coolidge, former governor of Massachusetts, a man who put the flint in flinty New Englander. Coolidge had taken refuge from the suffocating heat of the Washington summer at his family’s ancestral farm in tiny Plymouth Notch, Vt., far from any telephone. A telegram to the nearest Western Union office startled the clerk around midnight. When the messenger reached the farmhouse, Coolidge’s elderly father answered the knock, then called up the stairs to his sleeping son.
Of course, there was a copy of the Constitution nearby. After some study of Article II, Section I, by the light of a kerosene lamp, the Coolidges determined that it would be entirely legal for the father, a notary public and justice of the peace, to administer the oath of office to his son. Thus, around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 3, America had its 30th president.
Almost a century later, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will take the same oath under his own strange circumstances. The outgoing president and first lady will not be in attendance. The National Mall, which would normally be thronged with celebrating citizens, will instead be empty of people and ringed with troops. On the west front of the Capitol, where rioters battled police officers two weeks earlier in their effort to disrupt the election, assorted VIPs wearing masks will sit on widely spaced chairs in accordance with pandemic precautions.
But the lesson of the lamplit parlor in Vermont is that none of the trappings really matter. There is no right way or wrong way to inaugurate a president. The oath of office has been sworn under all sorts of circumstances. George Washington’s first took place on a porch overlooking Wall Street in downtown New York. He wasn’t sworn in by the chief justice of the United States because there was no chief justice yet.
Everything about the “traditional” ceremony is someone’s innovation. Thomas Jefferson in 1801 was the first to be inaugurated at the Capitol — indoors, inside the old Senate chamber — and the first to call for bitterly divided Americans to come together as one. “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists,” he said of the two warring parties at the time. More than two centuries later, Biden has the same job on his plate.
For generations, ceremonies were held on the east front of the Capitol in March. The 20th Amendment moved the date to Jan. 20 — and Mother Nature replied with a lashing rainstorm when the new date debuted in 1937. Even colder was the ceremony in 1961. Soldiers with flamethrowers cleared streets and walkways for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, yet the glare from snow-covered marble half-blinded Robert Frost, the first poet to participate in an inauguration ceremony.
Less than three years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson loomed inside a Boeing 707 and repeated the oath administered by U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, the first and only woman to perform that task. The window shades were lowered for fear that snipers might target Air Force One as it sat on a runway in Dallas. The corpse of a slain president lay in a casket by the rear door.
On Jan. 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan took the oath from Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, then faced the vista we have come to think of as permanent. “This is the first time in our history that this ceremony has been held . . . on this west front of the Capitol,” he said. Reagan made good use of this innovation, describing the monuments in his line of sight and the meanings each one commemorates. The peroration culminated with a simple white marker at Arlington, on the western horizon. It was the grave of a fallen warrior who had promised to work, sacrifice and endure for the sake of the nation.
Other words from that speech echo today. To his defeated predecessor Jimmy Carter, seated nearby, Reagan said: “By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people. . . . I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic. The business of our nation goes forward.”
Only the last of those words can be spoken this year; the rest would ring false even if Biden’s predecessor were present to hear them. Those are the most important words, however: The business of our nation goes forward.
Nothing else matters.
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