Why you should care
Because when you’re hosting an outdoor party for hundreds of thousands, plenty can go wrong.
Few ceremonies rival U.S. presidential inaugurations when it comes to the sheer scale of the event, the pomp and the accompanying circumstance. And with such a vast undertaking, not everything goes according to plan. The soaring oratory and solemn vows of the occasion have frequently been punctuated — and punctured — by gaffes, blunders, protests, bloopers and other mishaps. As we prepare for Donald J. Trump’s inauguration in Washington, here’s a look at some inaugural moments that went sideways.
Oaths and Other Speech Problems
The most prominent inaugural error in recent memory is, of course, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts leading Barack Obama astray during his oath of office in 2009. “What should have been a great moment,” observes author and expert on presidential inauguration history Jim Bendat in Democracy’s Big Day, “instead evolved into an embarrassing fiasco.”
But, as Bendat chronicles in his book, Roberts’ flub is hardly unique. Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson both screwed up the wording of their vice presidential oaths (in 1953 and 1961, respectively). And another chief justice, Howard Taft, mistakenly said “preserve, maintain and defend the Constitution” (using “maintain” instead of “protect”) while administering the oath to Herbert Hoover in 1929. The mistake was caught by Helen Terwilliger, 13, who was listening on the radio in Walden, New York, and informed the chief justice of the error in a letter.
Most Americans think of John F. Kennedy’s soaring eloquence in 1961 (“Ask not what your country …”), but Johnson’s misstatement was just one of many stumbles that year. As Cardinal Cushing prepared to give the invocation, smoke began rising from the lectern, which had caught fire. Cushing continued with his remarks as the Secret Service quickly fixed a smoldering wire from a heater placed inside the podium to warm speakers. Later, the eminent American poet Robert Frost was forced to abandon a new poem he had written expressly for the occasion (in favor of an old one he had memorized) because the glare from freshly fallen snow on a sunny day made reading the words too difficult.
The food was frozen. The drinks were frozen. So were the canaries.
Cloudy With a Chance of Mishaps
Frost’s difficulty was hardly the only weather-related mishap to afflict the inaugural celebrations. Taft’s inauguration, in 1909, was shifted indoors because of 10 inches of snow, and Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, in 1985 — the coldest inauguration on record — had to be moved inside the Capitol Rotunda when the temperature dipped to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (with a wind chill factor of minus 22). Just four years earlier, Reagan had enjoyed the warmest inaugural on record, at a temperate 55 degrees.
Perhaps the greatest weather-related fiasco ended in tragedy — for about 100 canaries brought in for Ulysses S. Grant’s 1873 inaugural ball. Someone had forgotten to heat the hall where the ball would take place. “The musicians were having difficulty,” Bendat tells OZY, “the guests were stumbling over one another while they were trying to dance still wearing their long coats and hats. The food was frozen. The drinks were frozen.” So were the canaries.
Poor Choices (and More Dead Birds)
The weather may even have played a role in an inauguration-related presidential death. William Henry Harrison’s 1841 address — a 8,495-word monstrosity that took him almost two hours to deliver — was not just an ordeal for his audience but also may have contributed to Harrison’s premature death in office. He spoke in the bitter cold without a coat or a hat, rode on a horse instead of inside a carriage, partied late into the night at the inaugural balls and died from pneumonia 30 days later.
Vice presidents no longer give inaugural addresses.
Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, fell ill before Lincoln’s second inauguration, in 1865, and had self-medicated with a great deal of whiskey before delivering his address. “When Johnson got up to speak, it was evident to everyone that he was drunk,” says Bendat. “He was rambling incoherently and it was a pretty embarrassing fiasco.” Vice presidents no longer give inaugural addresses.
Poor judgment and avian tragedy struck again in 1973. Concerned about the number of pigeons roosting along the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue, Nixon’s team had the trees treated with a chemical called Roost No More, which was supposed to irritate the birds’ feet. The birds ate the repellent instead, and the parade route was lined with scores of dead pigeons.
Greetings and Protestations
Trump’s inaugural parade route will likely be lined with protesters, but it may not rise to the level encountered by former president George W. Bush. After Bush’s hotly contested, Supreme Court–rendered election victory, his 2001 inaugural oath was disrupted by two half-naked protesters who had painted their bodies with “Hail to the Thief” and other disparagements, and his limousine was pelted with eggs. “While I couldn’t make out the words,” the former president observed in his memoir, Decision Points, “their middle fingers spoke loudly.”
Bush’s second address, in 2005, was also interrupted — this time by Code Pink protesters yelling, “Bring the troops home now!” For his part, the president managed to cause controversy and consternation — at least in Norway — when he gave the “Hook ’em, Horns” salute (raising the index and pinkie fingers on the right hand) as the University of Texas at Austin marching band passed by during the inaugural parade. Many shocked Norwegians interpreted the gesture as a salute to Satan.