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Thoughts on Inaugurations

At noon today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our nation’s 45th president. Afterward, following the precedent set by our first president and followed by all others since him, President Trump will deliver a speech. Some people will be listening attentively to catch any statements that will give them hope for the future. Other people will be hoping to snag from his speech any statements that they might use as hindrances to his efforts to run the country. Most people will simply be watching to see what happens, what Trump does differently than his predecessors, or what fashions the ladies in attendance are wearing.

In case you might be interested, I’d like to take a quick look backward (that’s what historians do, although sometimes their look is not too quick) at some tidbits of information about past presidential inaugurations and inaugural addresses.

First, consider length. The longest inaugural address was delivered by William Henry Harrison, who was inaugurated president in March 1841. His speech was 8,445 words long. He delivered it in a cold rain–without a hat. He caught a cold. It killed him one month later.

Perhaps one might think that the shortest address was delivered by the president who was best known for saying very little–Calvin Coolidge. After all, he was called “Silent Cal.” So taciturn was he that he once foiled a women who had bet another lady that she could get him to say more than two words at a White House banquet. She failed, and as she left afterward, he simply said to her, “You lose.” His inaugural address was 4,059 words, much shorter than Harrison’s had been but still much longer than many other presidential inaugural addresses.

Actually, the shortest address was delivered by George Washington at the beginning of his second term. It was only 135 words long. Too bad subsequent presidents didn’t follow that precedent! Doing so might have saved Harrison’s life.

After the inauguration come a slew of balls and parties, but not every inauguration has been marked by such levity. Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover had no inaugural balls. On the other hand, JFK had five–and attended them all. Clinton had a whopping 14 in 1997. The most expensive one was George W. Bush’s with a price tag of $40 million.

The transition between the outgoing president and the new tenant at the White House has not always been amicable. In 1801, John Adams was so upset by the rancorous campaign waged against him by winner Thomas Jefferson that he didn’t even attend his former friend’s inauguration. Instead, he slipped from town even before the new president was sworn into office. (Fortunately, the two men later reconciled, and both died on July 4 of the same year.)

In 1933, the defeated Hoover rode to the inauguration ceremony with the victorious FDR, but he refused to chit-chat amicably (or otherwise) with his opponent. That made for a long, quiet ride. Hoover sat sullenly; FDR flashed his trademark grin and waved to the crowds.

Let’s hope that this time the drive to the Capitol will be friendly, the speech is short and substantive, and the whole ceremony will be unmarred by anything of consequence. And let us thank God that we live in a nation and under a system of government that allows this transition of power from one man and one political party to another man and party to be peaceful.

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