Presidential Inauguration History: From Grand to Fatal to Downright Awkward

Many presidents found that their predecessors could be less than gracious during the ceremonies.

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When President-elect Barack Obama drops that pesky suffix on January 20, the thousands there will know what to expect: a swearing-in, a speech, and a parade.

But inaugurations haven't always been as straightforward as history's weight might imply. Along with jubilation, there have been frosty car rides, naked protesters, White House riots, and even, for one unfortunate president, a fatal onset of pneumonia.

When George Washington journeyed from Mount Vernon to New York, the U.S. capital at the time, he had two advantages over his successors. First, his 280-mile trip may have been on horseback, but it was punctuated with lavish celebrations: Philadelphians crowned him with a laurel, women in Trenton, N.J., scattered flowers and sang sonatas, and New Yorkers fired a 13-gun salute.

Second, he didn't have to worry about riding with his predecessor, a tradition that would begin with close allies Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren in 1837.

Some pairs executed the custom well. A gracious Millard Fillmore took his successor, Franklin Pierce, on a trip along the Potomac River. (Of course, he may have simply felt bad for Pierce, who had witnessed his 11-year-old son being crushed to death in a train wreck just two months earlier.)

Others, though, couldn't bear to abide by the precedent. Mutual dislike between President Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant caused Johnson to stay home from the 1869 inauguration. He was following in the footsteps of two pre-Jacksonian presidents, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, who shared a lack of grace along with genes: Neither attended his successor's inauguration.

Others endured the tradition, but frostily. One of the most awkward pairings was, oddly, between two old friends, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. "They had served together in Wilson's administration. They had been neighbors. They had socialized together," says Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. "In 1920, some Democrats wanted to run Hoover for president and Roosevelt for vice president. Roosevelt thought that was a great idea."

But politics came between them. By the 1933 inauguration, President Hoover deigned to ride with Roosevelt but wouldn't look at or speak to him—leaving Roosevelt to grasp at such conversation-starters as, "My dear Mr. President, aren't those the nicest steel girders you ever saw!"

The discomfort doesn't necessarily end upon reaching the Capitol. The most awkward moment—as well as the first time the inaugural oath was disrupted—occurred in 2001. In the wake of President George W. Bush's controversial 2000 victory, two protesters found a way around the ban on ticket-holders bringing signs, placards, or stickers to the inauguration. They wrote "No Mandate" and "Hail to the Thief" on their bodies and suddenly stripped 20 yards from the new president.

As far as uncomfortable moments go, next to nudity must be bungling the president's name. That happened to Robert Frost at the 1961 swearing-in of John F. Kennedy, says Jim Bendat, author of Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2009. Frost had penned a poem just for the occasion, but the sun's glare was too bright for the 86-year-old. "The poor guy couldn't see what he had written," Bendat says. New Vice President Lyndon Johnson's attempts to shield the poet's eyes from the glare with a top hat didn't help. Frost gave up and, instead, recited a poem that he knew by heart—but not before dedicating it to "the president-elect, Mr. John Finley." (Finley was a Harvard scholar.)

For another leader, it was his vice president's drunkenness that caused him shame. At his 1865 inauguration with Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson drank to make himself feel better after a bout with typhoid. The result was a speech so incoherent that one senator called it "the most unfortunate thing that has occurred in our history"—strong words, considering the country was in the midst of a civil war.

Still, the most tragic inauguration of an elected president had to be that of William Henry Harrison in 1841. Despite an ice storm, he refused a carriage to the ceremony. Once there, the 68-year-old spoke, hatless, for two solid hours—delivering, at 8,495 words, the longest inaugural address in history. He came down with pneumonia and died one month later.