Pomp, Circumstance And Screw-Ups: Inaugurations Through The Years From Andrew Jackson to Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama, presidential inaugurations have had their share of mistakes and oddities throughout history.
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Pomp, Circumstance And Screw-Ups: Inaugurations Through The Years

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Pomp, Circumstance And Screw-Ups: Inaugurations Through The Years

Pomp, Circumstance And Screw-Ups: Inaugurations Through The Years

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/509937000/509937001" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We are now just five days away from the swearing in of a new president, Donald Trump, who will take the oath on this coming Friday. An enormous crowd is expected to throng the west front of the United States Capitol here in Washington, just as an estimated 2 million did for President Obama's first inauguration eight years ago. Not everything went smoothly on that day, though. And in fact, there is a history of inaugural snafus, some that date all the way back to the 19th century.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our own Ron Elving, NPR's senior politics correspondent, of course, does not go back quite that far, but his knowledge is deep. We like to call him Professor Ron. So sit back, relax and let Professor Ron take you on a tour of inaugurations past.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Inaugurations are a lot like weddings. Both are public celebrations of decisions usually made months earlier. Both tend to attract a lot of family friends and curious onlookers. Both are also fraught with opportunities for messing up, and no one lets you forget when you do. Let's start with a case we all remember. Just eight years ago, holding his right hand in the air, President Obama took the presidential oath for the first time - or tried to.

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JOHN ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

US PRES BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

ROBERTS: That I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully.

OBAMA: That I will execute...

ROBERTS: The - faithfully the president - the office of president of the United States.

OBAMA: The office of president of the United States faithfully.

ELVING: The other voice you hear putting the word faithfully in the wrong place is that of Chief Justice John Roberts, who was himself administering this particular oath for the first time and with no visible crib sheet. A harmless flub, perhaps, but there were those who took it seriously. And in fact, the chief justice made a special trip to the White House the following day to re-administer the oath.

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OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

ROBERTS: That I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

OBAMA: That I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

ELVING: Just because there were those who thought the first take wasn't official.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hogwash. First of all, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution specifies that the new president's term begins at noon on January 20. And secondly, a number of presidents have simply said I do to the oath. They haven't repeated it at all.

ELVING: That's NPR's own legal expert on the matter. Some say it's enough - clearly Nina agrees - that the new president hear the oath and respond, I do, much as the bride and groom do at a wedding. But if you prefer the repeat after me routine, you'd better get it right.

LBJ muffed his lines as vice president in 1961. Instead of saying he had no mental reservation or purpose of evasion, Johnson said he had no mental reservation whatever. Well, close enough. Whatever. A more serious misreading happened at the inauguration of Herbert Hoover in 1929. Instead of promising to protect the United States, the ill-fated new chief executive swore to maintain it.

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WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT: That you will preserve, maintain and defend the Constitution of the United States?

HERBERT HOOVER: I do.

ELVING: It's a nice thought, but not really the point the framers meant to make. Once again, it wasn't the new president's fault, but the chief justice who had led him astray. On this occasion the chief justice was William Howard Taft, who should have known better. He had taken the oath as president himself 20 years earlier.

The 19th century had its share of uncomfortable inaugurals as well. In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant tried to liven things up with the songs of caged canaries. More than 100 of them died when temperatures plunged to record lows. The weather was also foul in 1841. The new president, William Henry Harrison, took the stand at the Capitol in a blustery wind without hat or coat, perhaps to burnish his image as a rugged frontiersman and military hero.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Called from a retirement, which I had supposed was...

ELVING: He also had a speech designed to impress his hearers with its erudition.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was the remark of a Roman consul...

ELVING: It lasted one hour and 40 minutes as the crowd shivered below.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I proceed to state in, as summary, a manner as - in the want of limit to the continuance of the executive power in this - upon on another occasion, I have given my opinion at some length.

ELVING: Legend has it the president caught a chill that day. And in any event, he died of pneumonia one month later.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I now take an affectionate leave of you with entire confidence and the support of a just and generous people.

ELVING: That story has made quite a few new presidents reconsider the length of their addresses. Likewise, the first warning about excessive inaugural celebrating dates to Andrew Jackson's first swearing in back in 1829. Jackson, the prototypical populist, flung wide the doors of the White House to welcome all comers. That gave rise to many tales of frontiersmen standing on the furniture in muddy boots, tearing down curtains and drinking whiskey on the front lawn. Now that was a party. And so we await the creation of new legends as this, our latest inaugural week, dawns in the nation's capital.

I'm Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

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