Traditions Stand Test of Time, D.C. Politics; Some Rituals Arise out of Accidents

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Traditions Stand Test of Time, D.C. Politics; Some Rituals Arise out of Accidents


Byline: Valerie Richardson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The presidential inauguration is steeped in history, pageantry and tradition, much of which occurred by accident.

Take the first inauguration. When George Washington took the first oath of office in 1789, he delivered his own address and ended with, So help me God.

Nothing in the Constitution or statute requires the president to invoke God or give a speech, but every president-elect has done so since, perhaps reasoning that it's best not to mess with certain traditions.

On the other hand, not everything Washington did at his two inaugurals has stood the test of time. For example, at his second inauguration in 1793, he delivered a speech of just 135 words. Not surprisingly, no president since has come close to matching Washington's brevity.

Other traditions have clung over the years like barnacles to a ship, and proven just as difficult to detach. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a church service before his swearing-in, and the die was cast. Instead of going to church after the inaugural or the next day, presidents-elect suddenly began sitting in pews the morning of their inauguration.

After the service, the president-elect, the vice-president elect and their families are escorted to the White House by members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is charged with running the day's events and helps decide which traditions to maintain and which to discard.

Today, the presidential procession to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony follows a firmly established protocol, based on the evolving traditions of past inaugurations, according to the inaugural committee.

The president-elect and outgoing president ride together to the inauguration ceremony, a tradition that began in 1837 with President-elect Martin Van Buren and outgoing President Andrew Jackson. The incoming vice president and departing vice president and their families follow.

One of the few exceptions was outgoing President Andrew Johnson, who had survived an impeachment trial the previous year and refused to accompany the president-elect, Ulysses S. Grant, to his 1869 inauguration. Johnson instead stayed at the White House and signed legislation.

The new vice president now takes the oath of office prior to the president at the inauguration ceremony, a tradition that began in 1937. Prior to that, vice presidents were sworn in inside the Capitol at the Senate chamber and apart from the president.

Presidents traditionally were sworn in on March 4, a practice that changed with the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in 1933. Now presidents are inaugurated Jan. 20, and if the date falls on a Sunday, presidents take the oath privately that day and then again in a public ceremony the following day.

The tradition of holding the inaugural ceremony outdoors began with President James Monroe, whose ceremony was moved outside after House Speaker Henry Clay refused to allow senators to bring in their own, more comfortable chairs into the House chamber, according to Senate historian Beth Hahn.

Jackson began the tradition of holding the inauguration on the East Front of the Capitol, a practice that ran for 35 inaugurals, interrupted only in instances of foul weather.

The ceremony moved to the West Front of the Capitol with President Ronald Reagan's first inauguration in 1981. The move allowed more spectators to attend the swearing-in and afforded better views. All successive presidents-elect have been sworn in on the West Front.

Mr. Reagan also holds the distinction of having the warmest Inauguration Day on record - a pleasant 55 degrees at his first swearing-in in 1981 - and the coldest one, a frigid 7 degrees in 1985, which forced the ceremony indoors to the Capitol Rotunda. …

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