Since I’m writing ahead of time and it’s not even January 17th yet — a day that may or may not erupt in violence — I have no idea what the circumstances will be as you read this on the morning of January 20, 2021.
Today, the duly elected Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris are set to be sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States at the Capitol in Washington D.C. at noon. Certain parties in this country think that the election was rigged, despite all evidence to the contrary. Or, rather, no evidence at all from their side.
So it could get ugly, and we could have started our Second Civil War by the time you read this — or sanity could prevail, the protests become nothing, especially given the massive presence of National Guard, DC Police, and other peacekeepers already set to be there.
It’s certainly going to be the most unusual inauguration of my lifetime, probably of any living person’s lifetime, and I’d even go so far as to say the most unusual in the entire history of the U.S.
There have been odd moments, of course, but nothing like what we’re looking at. But in the spirit of keeping things light on what could be a day that passes through some darkness before the clouds break, here are five unusual moments from past U.S. Presidential inaugurations.
- Andrew Jackson (March 4, 1829)
Does this quote from Whitehousehistory.org sound like anyone you know? “The ‘common man’ had come to the capital to revel in the installation of a popular champion as chief executive. Washingtonians, generally, were not so cheerful, deeming the admired champion a backwoods barbarian, his associates cronies, and his followers an uncivilized horde.”
That would be the bunch that turned up to cheer on the installation of Andrew Jackson as the seventh president, and Jackson was, to put it kindly, a genocidal monster. Maybe Harriet Tubman will finally replace him on the $20 bill.
Anyway, those “common men” came to the inauguration and then followed on to the White House for the afterparty, and it turned into a shitshow.
The mob wound up in the White House, trampling on delicate furniture, colliding with waiters and making them spill their laden trays, and generally causing havoc. As a side note, this election came four years after the previous, when none of the candidates, Jackson among them, gained enough Electoral votes, so the winner was decided by Congress.
It wasn’t Jackson, so 1828 was also a vindication for all of Jackson’s followers who felt that they’d been robbed in 1824. They just got caught up in the moment, I guess, once they managed to push their way into the White House. Plus ça change…
- Calvin Coolidge (August 3, 1923)
You’ll note by the date that this was no normal inauguration to begin with, and you’d be right. Coolidge, who was Vice President, originally became President #30 when Warren G. Harding dropped dead. “Silent Cal” got the news while he was visiting with the family homestead up in rural Vermont.
Not being big on publicity or anything like that, and since his father was a Justice of the Peace, Dad swore in Son on the spot in a private ceremony with a few witnesses and some members of the press. The news of Harding’s death had been delivered by hand because the homestead lacked electricity and a telephone.
The oath was repeated in Washington D.C. in front of a Justice from the Court of the District of Columbia.
Such a low-key inauguration makes it no surprise then why Dorothy Parker quipped what she did ten years later. When told that Coolidge had died, her snap response was, “How can they tell?”
- Lyndon Baines Johnson (November 22, 1963)
Another off-date inauguration for obvious reasons, LBJ became president when JFK was assassinated. His was the only mile-high inauguration, taking place on Air Force One en route back to D.C. from Dallas.
Johnson insisted that Jackie Kennedy be there with him, mainly so that JFK’s fans would accept him as the next president. Remember, Kennedy was the patrician East Coast liberal, while Johnson was brought on board to rein in the Southerners and Dixiecrats, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to think that the JFK fans would turn on LBJ.
There were also a couple of firsts with this one: The first and only time that a President was sworn in on an airplane, and the first time that the oath of office was administered by a woman, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes.
- Bill Clinton (January 20, 1993)
The most interesting feature of this inauguration was the rather unusual composition of the traditional parade to the Capitol. Rather than the usual military cadets and equestrian teams, the parade and pre-parade entertainment featured acts like a “precision lawn chair marching team,” a reggae band, and two Elvis impersonators, to represent the old fat one and the young skinny one.
Other guests in the parade included Lesbian and Gay Band of America; a company of hearing-impaired young adults using ASL to interpret lyrics from live music under the name the Sounds of Silence; former Peace Corps volunteers; residents from McCrossan Boys Ranch home for wayward boys; and a high school band from Florida, whose school was destroyed by hurricane Andrew.
As reported in the Washington Post at the time, “’We wanted to make sure that we chose a cross section of people and performers that would, to the extent possible, represent every sector of society,’ said Sally Aman, spokeswoman for the Inaugural Parade Committee. ‘We chose a group of performers that represents the theme of reunion in this inaugural.’”
Of course, almost as cool as all that inclusion was when Bill played sax at his own inaugural ball.
- Barack Obama (January 20, 2009)
Because Chief Justice John Roberts tripped on his tongue, Barack Obama was actually sworn in twice, once in public and once in private. Roberts’ stumble tripped up Obama as well and, especially because there were so many bitter losers waiting to delegitimize him at the first opportunity, they didn’t take any chances.
Hey, why risk some basement lawyer trying to claim, “They not do all words right, he not real pres?”
And there was yet another public ceremony, because the first one happened on a Sunday. Of course, the first one was and will always be the real one that made him President, fumbles notwithstanding, but that was followed by the private ceremony in the Blue Room of the White House, and then by the second public ceremony on Monday, January 21.
And why that second ceremony? It had nothing to do with making it legit. Rather, when January 20 falls on a Sunday, tradition dictates that the President takes the formal oath on that day, then repeats the ceremony and gives his address on Monday.
Which, nowadays, makes no sense. I mean, hell, they moved the Oscars to Sunday so more people could watch, right? And when is the Super Bowl?
Oh… bonus fun fact. Advertisers cannot refer to the Super Bowl in their commercials, even if they run during the Super Bowl. They have to call it “The Big Game.”
So, while today’s events will certainly be unusual for a lot of reasons, may they not be extraordinary, and may Thursday find us all living together in peace.