When William Howard Taft was sworn in as president of the United States in 1909, he was moved to say, “I knew it would be a cold day when I got to be president.”
Taft wasn’t referring to his chances of becoming president, since he had received the support of his popular predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. He was talking about the weather — it was cold and blizzardy on that inauguration day.
But that’s not unusual. Half of America’s presidential inaugurations have taken place during rain, snow or numbing cold — and most of them were held in March; the ceremony wasn’t moved to January until 1937.
It was so chilly when William Henry Harrison took the oath of office in 1841 that the president caught a cold that turned into pneumonia and killed him a month later. At President Ulysses Grant’s inauguration in 1873, the punch turned to ice and the canaries that were to sing at the inaugural ball froze to death.
When the inauguration date was changed from March 4 to Jan. 20 in time for Franklin Roosevelt’s second swearing-in in 1937, the chances for bad weather only worsened. Soldiers used flame throwers to melt snow at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 and police were kept busy running frostbitten parade participants to the emergency room. It was so cold (7 degrees Fahrenheit at noon) at Ronald Reagan’s second ceremony in 1985 that the inaugural parade was canceled for the first time in history.
No one knows what the weather will be like during the public inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 21, but organizers are telling everyone who will witness the ceremony or parade to bundle up. Historically, the average high on that date is 43 degrees, according to AccuWeather.com.
Tickets to the oath-taking ceremony are free and given out by members of Congress. Each member of the House and Senate is allotted 177 standing-room tickets and 19 seated ones. However, “most offices have already given all their tickets,” said Alex Cruz of Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office.
“But anyone can witness the inauguration from the National Mall,” said Kate Gibbs of the Washington Convention Bureau. No ticket is required for standing room from Fourth Street and beyond, and large television screens will be mounted along the Mall, she said.
Whatever the weather, the crowds aren’t likely to be as big as in 2009, when a record 1.8 million watched from the Mall. Estimates for 2013’s event are running from 600,000 to 800,000, but a stormy, snowy day could keep many people home.
In any case, the public won’t get to see the president’s real oath-taking because the constitutionally set time a new president takes office is noon on Jan. 20. Since that day falls on a Sunday this year, the president will be sworn in at a private White House ceremony that day, and a public inauguration will take place on Monday, Jan. 21. This circumstance, too, is not unusual. It has happened six times before, most recently in the second inauguration of Reagan in 1985.
Most of the hoopla associated with the inauguration will be on Jan. 21. Not just the public oath-taking, but also the inaugural parade and the official balls. A children’s concert hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden will take place on Jan. 19.
This year’s activities will be scaled down, reflecting tough economic times. Bill Clinton attended a record 14 inaugural balls in 1997, George W. Bush visited nine in 2005. At his first inaugural in 2009, Obama attended 10 balls. This year he will visit only two, according to the Associated Press — the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball and the Inaugural Ball, both at the cavernous Washington Convention Center the night of the public inauguration. These are “official” balls and are by invitation only.
However, at least 35 other “unofficial” inaugural balls have been announced, most taking place in the days before the actual inauguration. They are open to the public and range from about $100 to $250 per person. Some are sponsored by state societies, Florida State Society among them, but anyone can stage them, so they espouse a variety of themes and causes. There are balls titled Disability and Pride, Blue Lights in the Ballroom and Rhythm and Blues Reloaded.
There’s even a ball for late-nighters. “Our late-night Chefs Ball allows guests coming from other galas and events to continue the celebration with us at Art and Soul [restaurant],” said chef Art Smith, who hosts the food event along with Wes Morton and five other celebrity chefs. All proceeds from the Jan. 19 event, priced at $75, go to charity.
Even if they don’t witness the inauguration itself, visitors to Washington can enjoy inaugural-related events, including historic exhibits.
In the Capitol Visitors Center’s Exhibition Hall are some inaugural-related exhibits. “My favorite is a photo of President Lincoln making his inaugural address in 1865 with an iron table in front of him,” said the Visitor Center’s Tom Fontana. “We have that table there.” Other inaugural exhibits may be in the Senate wing.
The venerable Willard Hotel, which has seen many inaugurals, has an exhibit of images and other presidential-related items in its gallery. “President Lincoln and his family stayed at the Willard for two weeks in 1861 before moving into the White House,” said the hotel’s Barbara Bahny-David. “His bill came to $773.75.” A copy of that bill is on view in the gallery.
The Willard has hosted many presidents and other dignitaries since 1853. President Grant popularized the word “lobbyist” while at the Willard, Julia Ward Howe wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic there, and President Coolidge stayed at the hotel until Warren Harding’s widow moved out of the White House. The hotel decorates its facade with flags and patriotic bunting during the inauguration period..
The Newseum will open a special exhibit on presidential campaigns, elections and inaugurations in mid-January. Called Every Four Years, it will run to Jan. 27. (The Newseum also has an excellent view of the inaugural parade, but admission for that day is already sold out.)
You can see gowns worn at inaugural balls by some presidential wives at the First Ladies exhibit in the National Museum of American History.
Portraits of America’s presidents are on view at the National Portrait Gallery, and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, will have special activities in honor of the inauguration Jan. 18-21.