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Published: Wednesday, 1/9/2013

Presidents put personal stamp on inauguration

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - From George Washington to President-elect George W. Bush, America's chief executives have infused their inaugurations with their own particular blend of politics and personality.

Emphasizing his belief in the “leveling principles'' of democracy, Thomas Jefferson walked from his Capital Hill boarding house to his first inauguration, and then walked back home for dinner. A few years later, the stylish John Quincy Adams - the first son of a president to become president himself - became the first to be sworn in wearing long trousers. (In the style of the time, the earliest presidents had won knee breeches).

William Henry Harrison rode a white charger up Pennsylvania Avenue to his swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol. Abraham Lincoln invited African-Americans to march, for the first time, in his second inaugural parade. Nearly 60 years later, women were proud first-time participants in Woodrow Wilson's second inaugural parade.

Herbert Hoover was the first whose inauguration was captured in a “talking newsreel,” while Harry Truman's inauguration was the first to be televised. And just four years ago, Bill Clinton was the first president whose inaugural ceremony was broadcast live on the Internet.

“In each case, with the 35-word oath, the power of the nation passed into the hands of the rightful successor to the presidency,'' writes Louise Durbin in Inaugural Cavalcade, her study of presidential inaugurations.

“Throughout, there has been a peaceful continuity in change, despite the trauma of the times, and though this transition of power may be taken for granted today, in the early days of the republic it was recognized as being an extraordinary event in the history of nations.”

In other words, presidential inaugurations are “democracy's big day,'' as Mr. Bush's father once said.

Overall, America's presidential inaugurations are unique patchwork of politics, tradition, and symbolism. Some, like Ulysses S. Grant's two inaugurations, have been deliberately opulent affairs with high-priced tickets and lavish balls (although Grant's second ball was marred by freezing temperatures that chilled guests, froze the food, and killed the canaries imported to sing for the occasion).

Other inaugurations, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth inauguration in the midst of World War II, have been starkly simple. In 1945, Roosevelt broke tradition and had his swearing-in at the White House, instead of the Capitol. And, out of respect to the wartime conditions, there was no parade or ball.

Another no-frills inauguration occurred in 1877. Like the 2000 presidential race between Mr. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, the 1876 contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was a squeaker, and wasn't decided until two days before the inauguration.

Because there was no time to plan elaborate festivities, Hayes settled for a hastily arranged nighttime torchlight procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mr. Bush and his aides have had more planning time than Hayes - about a month - but that's far less than other presidents. As a result, it's not clear yet just how Mr. Bush, the second son of a president to become president himself, will choose to put his individual mark on inaugural history Saturday.

There will be the traditional swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol, set to begin at 11:30 a.m. In addition, there will be an inaugural parade, plus a dozen different gala balls later that night.

With 10,900 participants, Mr. Bush's parade certainly will be shorter than Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 procession, which featured 35,000 marchers. Roosevelt's tart-tongued daughter Alice said the only thing lacking in her father's parade was the president's defeated Democratic challenger “marching in chains.”

Security will be tight for Mr. Bush's inauguration, as it has been for previous presidents, including Lincoln. Although Lincoln slipped unobtrusively into town to foil an alleged assassination plot on his train, he insisted on riding in an open carriage to his first inauguration in 1861.

One of the biggest changes over the years in the nation's inaugural celebrations is the decision to move the date for Inauguration Day from March 4 to Jan. 20. The change was included in the passage of the 20th Amendment in the 1930s, which was passed to limit the time a “lame duck'' president is in office.

Weather is the one major unpredictable element in America's presidential inaugurations. Even when the inaugurations were held in March, as they were until 1937, winter weather conditions often prevailed. At Grant's second inaugural parade, Ms. Durbin writes, the valves of musical instruments stuck, some marchers fainted from cold, and “tears froze on the cheeks of the little drummer boys.''

William Howard Taft's inauguration was held in a blizzard, which cut off the nation's capital from outside communication. As he headed off to the Capitol, Taft remarked: “I always said it would be a cold day when I got to be president of the United States.''

More recently, Ronald Reagan's second swearing-in, in 1985, was forced indoors by bitter cold, and all outdoor events were cancelled.

The U.S. Constitution doesn't have much to say about inaugurations, providing only the words for the oath of office. Beyond that, it's legally up to the president to determine how he wants to celebrate his inauguration.

But Inauguration Day is steeped in tradition, and few presidents have had the fortitude to buck the most time-honored customs. For example, since the time when Navy Yard mechanics escorted Thomas Jefferson back to the White House after his second swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural parade has become a virtual staple of Inauguration Day.

While the inaugural events are meant to be celebrations, some presidents have attended the festivities with heavy hearts. For example, Andrew Jackson's first inaugural in 1829 was marred by the fact that his wife had died soon after the election. In 1853, Franklin Pierce and his wife were mourning the death of their only surviving child, an 11-year-old boy, who was killed before their eyes in a train wreck shortly after the election.

And, in 1923, festivities at Calvin Coolidge's first inauguration were kept to a minimum because of the recent death of his 16-year-old son.



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