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Inaugural Follies

LOC American history specalist Marvin Kranz, now retired
Marvin Kranz

Marvin Kranz, the now-retired specialist in American History at the Library of Congress, admits to feeling unnerved by the prospect of several million people crowding onto the Washington Mall for President Obama’s inaugural; of 10,000 buses all needing parking, no bathrooms, and pushing and shoving for a glimpse of the historic procession along Pennsylvania Avenue.

But mayhem and bad manners have been the order of the day, Kranz observes. The fun started with George Washington’s inaugural, which took place in lower Manhattan’s Federal Hall, where the U.S. Sub Treasury building now stands. “Washington was about to be sworn in when he said, ‘Where’s the bible?’” said Kranz. “Somebody had to run over and get one next door at the Masonic Lodge.”

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Eisenhower's First Inaugural Address
Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address

It’s well known that when Andrew Jackson decided to open his inaugural to an adoring public, the public responded by enthusiastically trashing the White House, standing on sofas in their muddy boots, breaking furniture and the like.

Similar misadventures befell other presidents. James Buchanan’s party of guests got food poisoning the night before in a Washington hotel and could barely make it through the ceremony. At Grant’s second inaugural ball, Kranz said, “There was a temporary wooden building erected to serve the crowd liquor, but it was so cold that everyone ignored the liquor and went for hot coffee and cocoa.” Then, when a flock of doves was released into the frigid air, to symbolize the General’s (anything-but-dovish) victory over his political foes, “the doves promptly keeled over.”

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural remains notable for two snafus. As Baby Boomers may remember, Kennedy was the first president to ask a poet to read at the swearing-in ceremony—fellow New Englander Robert Frost. The notoriously unpredictable Frost had more than risen to the occasion, with a poem, “Dedication,” written especially for Kennedy. But on that snowy January day, with the sun reflecting off the snow onto the lectern, Frost was completely blinded. So he was forced to recite an old favorite, “The Gift Outright,” from memory. “Nobody cared,” said Kranz. Next came a bit of electrical mischief, causing the lectern to catch fire just as Boston’s Cardinal Cushing was about to speak.

So is Kranz planning to live dangerously and attend President Obama’s inaugural?

“I’d love to,” said the historian of first-days-on-the-job, “but I think I’m going to watch it on my eldest daughter’s big flat-screen TV.”

The Library of Congress owns “I Do Solemnly Swear…”, a collection of speeches, documents, photographs and other items from each U.S. President’s inauguration.

For collectors, an excellent source of material related to U.S. Presidential inaugurations is the Pennsylvania-based Raab Collection, a father/son business dealing in historical letters, documents and manuscripts.

Photo courtesy of Raab Collection.
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