Lesser-known Inaugural Traditions

Barack Obama took the oath of office today as the 44th President of the United States, continuing an unbroken succession of leaders dating back two centuries.

George Washington started many traditions in the inaugural inaugural in 1789, including using a Bible. It is worth noting that “So help me God” is not part of the official oath, and is one of the many traditions adopted by Washington’s successors.

Some other Inauguration Day traditions were not as well-publicized, however, and I include them below.

Thomas Jefferson (1801). Dubious of Christ’s divinity but also of residual leanings toward the monarchy in the young country, took oath of office on a deck of cards with the four kings removed. When Chief Justice John Marshall, an ally of defeated president John Adams, asked about the jokers, Jefferson replied “Well, I do speak of the pompatus of love, sir.”

William Henry Harrison (1841). In place of “So help me God” said, “Unless I die of pneumonia in 30 days and am of no use to you, sir.”

James K. Polk (1845). Instituted practice of having someone else pay for pre-inaugural brunch, but would cover tip.

Abraham Lincoln (1865). The 16th president’s more relaxed second inaugural included a Rose Garden game of Catch Mary Todd with a Butterfly Net, Because She’s Crazy. Mary Todd would continue this tradition until James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, at which point Vice President Chester Arthur caught and subdued the former First Lady, but good.

Grover Cleveland (1885). When Chief Justice Morrison Waite administered the oath of office, said “Grover. Really. Your name is Grover.” Presidents until Calvin Coolidge (1923) would ceremonially offer a coin to the Chief Justice just before the oath and declare “Verily I say unto thee my name be not Grover.”

Benjamin Harrison (1889). Like his relative William Henry, showed a gift for prophecy when he quipped “Feels like a Grover sandwich up in here” in his inaugural address. Having narrowly defeated predecessor Cleveland in the election of 1888, was succeeded by Cleveland in 1893.

Warren Harding (1921). As the new president’s entourage headed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Harding suddenly withdrew a pistol and shot a donkey between the eyes, but only wounded the animal. The “Wandering Donkey” would be wheeled out and shot at by presidents until Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural (1945), at which point a cranky, ailing FDR simply rolled over the beast with his wheelchair.

Lyndon Johnson (1965). Roped a secretary from the typing pool, dragged her length of a regulation longhorn pen (325 feet). Tradition continued until Gerald Ford (1974) confused the practice with Harding’s and shot Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton between the eyes.

Bill Clinton (1993). Took a bite out of inauguration poet Maya Angelou, thinking “she was a lifesize cake.” Echoed apocryphal story that John F. Kennedy (1961) did the same to poet Robert Frost. Some evidence of this exists, as Frost delivered a speech two weeks later at the University of New Hampshire with a sizable bite taken out of him.

George W. Bush (2001). In keeping with manner of acquiring the presidency, stole bath towels, tablecloths, and warming trays from each hotel his family stayed in between the election and assumption of office. Also added “Says You” to each line of oath.

Barack Obama (2009). Heard to mutter “What do we pay you for?” to mush-mouthed Chief Justice John Roberts, continuing occasional under-the-breath barbs to Chief Justice traditions of John Quincy Adams/John Marshall (1825), Rutherford Hayes/Morrison Waite (1877), and William Howard Taft/Melville Fuller (1909), who said “Dullard,” “You’re fat,” and “Fuller my boot in your ass” respectively.

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