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Braving the Elements on Inauguration Day

With the jet stream forecast to plunge south for inauguration, the resulting arctic blast is eliminating any hope of unseasonably warm inaugural weather.

The National Weather Service says that on an average January Inauguration Day, the thermometer reading is in the upper 30s, with a wind chill around the freezing mark. Of course, there have been wild variations over the years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration, which was the first held in January.

This year, the temperature at noon Monday in Washington is predicted to hover in the low 30s, according to the weather service. There’s also a chance of snow showers in the forecast. The odds are against any accumulation of snow, however. The weather service, which has compiled inaugural weather statistics dating from George Washington’s first inauguration — on April 30, 1789, in New York City — says there’s only a 10 percent chance of measurable snowfall at that point in January on Capitol Hill.

Snow has fallen on Inauguration Day before, with one of the most memorable instances being John F. Kennedy’s 1961 swearing-in. Although there was talk of cutting back the celebration because of snowfall overnight, it went forward. Kennedy’s inaugural address came to be known as one of the most famous speeches in American history, in which he urged Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

A word of caution for those planning to partake in the inaugural balls and other festivities Monday night: The temperature is likely to fall as evening approaches, with the mercury dropping into the 20s.

Even that is nowhere near as cold as it was in 1985, on the day of the inaugural to start President Ronald Reagan’s second term; the ceremony had to be moved indoors, and the parade was canceled. That day, the air temperature at noon was only 7 degrees. Reagan’s first inaugural was a much more pleasant affair, with a 55-degree temperature.

Of course, the most famous cold-weather inauguration occurred in 1841, when William Henry Harrison took the oath and gave a lengthy speech on a blustery March day in Washington. Not long thereafter, he developed pneumonia and soon died. The story of the 1853 inauguration is less widely known: That year, the wife of departing President Millard Fillmore, Abigail, caught a cold on a snowy Inauguration Day; like Harrison 12 years earlier, she contracted pneumonia and died not long after the inauguration.

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