Inauguration Superlatives: The High Highs and Low Lows

Rhetoric, flubs, health and even conspirators can steal the spotlight

President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address was marred by a flub over the oath and a health scare at the lunch afterward. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address was marred by a flub over the oath and a health scare at the lunch afterward. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Jason Dick
Posted January 19, 2017 at 5:00am

Under the best circumstances, a presidential inauguration can inspire a nation. Under the worst, it can lead to a do-over. And sometimes, not to be melodramatic, but dark forces conspire around it.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” Abraham Lincoln said at his second inauguration, delivered to a country ripped apart by the Civil War. 

Lincoln’s second inaugural address is considered one of the very best of its kind, and its delivery date, March 4, 1865, came just over a month before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox to effectively end the war on April 9. Its message of healing was resonant and timely. But among the estimated crowd of 50,000, assembled on the East Front of the Capitol for the speech, was Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth. On April 14, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

Not everything soars thusly or ends so tragically. Most inaugural addresses fit into a mushy middle where presidents challenge citizens to think highly of their place in the world and et cetera. None of these are particularly memorable, being neither offensive nor original.

Look no further than this non-gem: “I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.” That was none other than George Washington, on the occasion of his second inauguration. Workmanlike, sure, but not thrilling rhetoric.

Things can also go wrong on a number of levels.

In 2009, in front of a crowd of approximately 1.8 million on the West Front of the Capitol and National Mall, and countless millions more on television and the internet, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and incoming President Barack Obama managed to mess up the most basic part of the ceremony: the oath.

According to the Constitution, the oath is supposed to go like this: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Roberts moved the word “faithfully” to after “president of the United States.” Obama stopped after the word “execute,” and the exchange that followed has become American politics’ version of “Who’s on First.”

A few days later, out of what the White House Counsel’s office called an abundance of caution, Roberts traipsed to the White House to administer the oath again. Similar miscues with the oath prompted Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge to opt for do-overs. It can detract.

Obama’s first inauguration endured another mishap when Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was ailing with brain cancer, suffered a seizure at the inaugural lunch in Statuary Hall. Kennedy’s collapse prompted an outburst of concern from Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Kennedy was evacuated to Washington Hospital Center, while the upset Byrd was led out of the lunch.

As anyone who lives in Washington knows, the weather during winter, coming as it does during the earlier inaugural periods of March, or after the 20th Amendment changed the date, late January, can be unpredictable and even downright nasty.

In 1961, the Army had to bring in flamethrowers to melt heavy snow drifts around the Capitol before John F. Kennedy went to take the oath. And the miserable and wet cold in 1841 has been famously blamed for the death 32 days later of President William Henry Harrison.

Legend has it that Harrison caught a cold, then pneumonia, after speaking nearly two hours after taking the oath. Some contemporary historians contend Harrison might have died of a far less dramatic ailment: septic shock brought on by contaminated water supplies. But no one disputes that the weather on Inauguration Day 1841 was terrible.

As absurd as these calamities and mistakes are, the day also has the potential for truly sublime moments. It was on March 4, 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took the stage during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt assured a rattled country.

Twenty-eight years later, Kennedy challenged a growing superpower. “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” he exhorted.

No one knows what Donald Trump has in store for history at his inauguration. But the forecast is for rain.