7 Huge Mistakes of Inaugurations Past

By Mark Micheli

January 17, 2013

For all the preparation and pageantry of presidential inaugurations, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. In the depths of inaugural history lie some fascinating goofs, flubs and even deadly mistakes. Here now, in chronological order, we present a list of seven notable failures of inaugurations past:

1. The Time a Mob Attacked the White House

March 4, 1829
11th Inaugural Ceremony
President Andrew Jackson

After a bitter campaign between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson in 1828, Jackson emerged victorious. Jackson, a native of Tennessee, was thought to be a wild man whose manners and etiquette were beneath the office of the presidency. Whether Jackson lived into the stereotype is debatable. What’s not is that his "guests" during the inauguration certainly did.

From National Journal:

In 1829, Andrew Jackson threw a party at the White House after the ceremony and then had trouble getting rid of the riff-raff. As the first "outsider" president, Jackson attracted a rough-and-tumble type of crew to his party. The crowd tramped through the house with muddy boots, ruined the carpets, and tore down some curtains. The only way the White House staff was able to get them out of the house was to put a tub of whiskey out on the front lawn. That did the trick.

[Image credit: Architect of the Capitol]

2. The Time a President Died

March 4, 1841
14th Inaugural Ceremony
President William Henry Harrison

What many say was an attempt to prove his virility in his old age, President William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history. In the bitter cold, Harrison spoke for over two hours without a hat or jacket and attended three inaugural balls. Right after, he developed an pneumonia and, on April 4, died—a month to the day he was sworn in. What began with the longest inaugural address ever ended in the shortest presidency in history.

[Image credit: Library of Congress]

3. The Time Everybody Got Violently Sick (And Some Died)

March 4, 1857
18th Inaugural Ceremony
President James Buchanan


Before the Newseum stood on Pennsylvania Ave, the location was home to the National Hotel, once Washington’s largest hotel. In early 1857, patrons visiting for the presidential inauguration on March 4 began to fall violently ill. One stricken guest was President-elect James Buchanan, who resided in the hotel prior to moving into the White House. The illness, now believed to have been dysentery caused in part by a poorly designed sewage system, caused Buchanan to nearly miss his inauguration. Ultimately, nearly three dozen died and as many as 400 fell ill.    

[Image credit: Library of Congress]

4. The Time the VP Showed Up Drunk

March 4, 1865
20th Inaugural Ceremony
President Abraham Lincoln


No wonder they impeached him later! In 1865, Andrew Johnson, President Lincoln’s new Vice President, was battling a fever (he later claimed it was Typhoid fever)—something I guess they used to recommend you treat with alcohol. Johnson showed up to the swearing in on March 4 completely wasted. He supposedly slurred through his entire speech, spoke far longer than anticipated and had to be escorted out. Lincoln, who was said to be visibly embarrassed, went on to give what is widely considered the greatest inaugural address in history.

[Image credit: Library of Congress]

5. The Time in 1961 When Everything Went Wrong

January 20, 1961
44th  Inaugural Ceremony
President John F. Kennedy

You know things aren’t going well when your Vice President skips a part of his oath by saying, “whatever.” During the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn swore in Vice President Lyndon Johnson. This was part of their exchange:

Rayburn: “I take this obligation without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”

Johnson: “I take this obligation without any mental reservation…whatever.”

Sounds pretty evasive to me…Kennedy’s inauguration, in which he gave one of history’s most quotable inaugural addresses, also ran into trouble when the stage nearly caught on fire during the invocation, the glare off the snow made Robert Frost unable to read his poem and then, finally, when Frost called Kennedy by the wrong name. Oh, the ‘60s.

[Image credit: Architect of the Capitol]

6. The Time Nixon Killed a Bunch of Birds

January 20, 1973
47th Inaugural Ceremony
President Richard Nixon

Jim Bendat, an Inauguration Day historian and author of Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2013, relayed this tale to National Journal’s Ben Tarris, who wrote:

Birds have not fared well in a number of the ceremonies. In 1873, Ulysses S. Grant wanted canaries at his second inaugural ball. Presumably for the whimsy of it all. What planners did not plan for, however, were extremely cold temperatures. One hundred birds froze to death that day. BUT, at least that was an accident. In an effort to keep pigeons from pooping into his open-top limo, Richard Nixon did one of the most Nixonian things of all time in 1973. He had the inaugural committee spend $13,000 to spray Roost No More, a chemical bird repellent, along the parade route. Dozens of dead birds lined the streets during the inaugural parade.

[Image credit: Architect of the Capitol]

7. The Time Justice Roberts Screwed Everything Up

January 20, 2009
56th Inaugural Ceremony
President Barack Obama

A president is constitutionally required to say, "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." At the inauguration Roberts flubbed his lines, saying "that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully." Out of what the White House called “an abundance of caution” Roberts came to the White House the next day to re-administer the oath. Obama joked the real reason they did it twice was because “we decided it was so much fun.”

The mistake will help Obama tie FDR as only the second president sworn in four times.

[Image credit: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza]

Image via Spirit of America/Shutterstock.com


By Mark Micheli

January 17, 2013

http://www.govexec.com/excellence/promising-practices/2013/01/7-huge-mistakes-inaugurations-past/60742/