Ballot Box

How Not To Give an Inaugural

Lessons from 216 years of history online.

Presidential inaugurations, once quiet affairs that lasted part of a day, now sprawl across the calendar. The 55th Presidential Inaugural comes with a 116-page media guide and its own theme, “Celebrating Freedom & Honoring Service.” Thursday, the day of President Bush’s second swearing-in, is called “Inauguration Day,” in order to distinguish it from the rest of the weeklong inaugural festivities. The official events began Tuesday, with a tribute to the U.S. military and a titled-by-committee “youth event” called “America Rocks the Future: A Call to Service,” which included the Bush twins, Ruben Studdard, and former New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn among its eminences.

We’ve come a long way from George Washington’s second inauguration, which featured a 135-word address that consisted mostly of the first president giving himself stage directions: “Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence.” Now we even have “counterinaugurals,” presumably designed to protest the costly, wasteful spectacle by throwing a costly, wasteful spectacle.

Despite the changes over the years, however, the 54 inaugurations prior to this one share a lot in common, as outlined by former Clinton administration speechwriter and occasional Slate contributor Ted Widmer in “So Help Me God,” a delightful article in the Winter 2005 issue of the American Scholar. Widmer distills the typical inaugural address to 10 bullet points:

1. I am not worthy of this great honor.

2. But I congratulate the people that they elected me.

3. Now we must all come together, even those of us who really hate each other.

4. I love the Constitution, the Union, and George Washington.

5. I will work against bad threats.

6. I will work for good things.

7. We must avoid entangling alliances.

8. America’s strength=democracy.

9. Democracy’s strength=America.

10. Thanks, God.

But what about the atypical inaugural address? Widmer covers those, too. The worst, for example, he argues, were William Howard Taft’s, William McKinley’s first inaugural, and William Henry Harrison’s. (Someone should warn the electorate about voting for people named William.) Widmer also dispenses more trivia than the average Brian Lamb interview. We learn that the tradition of an inaugural parade began when Andrew Jackson tried to flee the “mob that showed up to congratulate him” on beginning his first term in office. (He advises TV viewers to look at the bands behind the presidential motorcade as “slightly menacing.”) Fifty-three of the 54 inaugural addresses give a shout-out to God, but not one mentions Jesus.

The disappointment that comes from reading “So Help Me God” stems from the fact that it isn’t available online, and therefore doesn’t link to any of the source material Widmer discusses. But the article makes perfect companion reading to the Library of Congress’s Web site, “I Do Solemnly Swear…,” which contains links to the transcripts of every inaugural address. It also contains the first known photo taken of an inauguration, of James Buchanan’s, which Widmer discusses. (Though he does not mention the ominousness of the event for the effect of the mass media on the Republic, given that Buchanan is the consensus pick for Worst President of All Time. I once took a trip to Wheatland, Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, Pa., which ended with the docent apologizing for the Buchanan presidency by noting how he was not “the right man for his times.”)

While Widmer only describes an “interminable single sentence” that lasts 700-plus words in John Adams’ address, the Web site links to a site where you can read it. (Adams begins, unironically, by saying, “On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak with diffidence…”) Or what about that lone exclamation point in inaugural-address history that Widmer mentions? Again, it’s a click away. (It’s Martin Van Buren being, as Widmer writes, “neither funny nor shocking”: “If such men in the position I now occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this the highest of all marks of their country’s confidence, and by a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the duties of an office so difficult and exalted, how much more must these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims for favor or forbearance!”)

For praiseworthy but largely unremembered addresses, Widmer recommends Benjamin Harrison, a “sensitive writer,” or Eisenhower’s second inaugural, which, “while unknown to most, bears a close rereading today for its shrewd assessment of imperial overreach.” But don’t miss the Awful Inaugurals. McKinley’s first inaugural address includes a discursion on “international bimetallism.” William Henry Harrison’s address is renowned as a pneumonia-inducing suicide note. Taft, unbelievably, begins his by opening himself up to a fat joke: “Anyone who has taken the oath I have just taken must feel a heavy weight of responsibility.” It’s downhill from there. A sample piece of oratory: “Some type of canal must be constructed. The lock type has been selected. We are all in favor of having it built as promptly as possible. We must not now, therefore, keep up a fire in the rear of the agents whom we have authorized to do our work on the Isthmus.” And presumably Michael Gerson won’t have Bush on Thursday echo Taft’s declaration, “Personally, I have not the slightest race prejudice …”