Recall the Inglorious Moments

Posted January 12, 2009 at 4:21pm

Those wondering what to expect at Barack Obama’s upcoming inauguration might find it helpful to look to the past. Jim Bendat provides a resource in “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of our President, 1789-2009.”

The recently updated book comprises a series of vignettes about past inaugurations, explaining the source of various traditions and offering anecdotes about everything from lofty speeches to inclement weather. Here are some highlights:

• When John Quincy Adams took office, his father, former president John Adams, was quoted as saying, “No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.”

• Although the outgoing president traditionally rides to the Capitol with his successor, antagonism between the two sometimes intervenes. While Ulysses S. Grant was taking the oath of office, Andrew Johnson stayed in the White House signing a few final bills.

• George W. Bush was interrupted while attempting to take the oath during his first inauguration by two naked protesters. Their bodies were painted with phrases such as “No Mandate” and “Hail to the Thief.”

• Then-Vice President Andrew Johnson was blatantly drunk during his rambling, incoherent speech in 1865. Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) referred to the inebriated VP’s slurred address as “the most unfortunate thing that has occurred in our history.”

• The shortest inaugural address belongs to George Washington, who needed only 135 words at his second inauguration. The longest address was delivered by William Henry Harrison, whose 8,495-word speech spanned more than two hours.

• Although Harrison’s interminable speech may have seemed merely self- aggrandizing to the audience, it proved fatal. Harrison spoke without a hat on a bitterly cold day and then stayed up all night celebrating. He succumbed to pneumonia after only a month in office, giving him the twin distinctions of longest inaugural address and shortest time as president.

• Lincoln’s second inaugural parade was the first to include Native Americans and African-Americans. Lincoln also welcomed abolitionist Frederick Douglass into the White House that night and sought his opinion on his inaugural address.

• While inaugural balls have become a mainstay of the post-swearing-in celebration, they are not as grand as they used to be. While guests could at one time expect to feast on delicacies from Europe, recent parties have offered “little plastic boxes” containing sandwiches and cash bars dispensing warm sparkling wine and $5 beers.

• Andrew Jackson threw the wildest party in inauguration history. Jackson opened the White House to the public and guests from all rungs of society surged in, tracking mud on fine chairs, smashing china and fighting for a glimpse of the new president. Ultimately, the guests were diverted when someone placed large tubs of whiskey on the White House lawn.

• The departing president traditionally leaves a note in the Oval Office for the incoming president. While these notes usually stick to passing on some brief or gracious advice, Ronald Reagan’s missive to George H.W. Bush began with the line, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”