US Presidential Inaugurations Have Rich History

When President George Bush takes the oath of office for a second four-year term on January 20th, it will be the latest installment of an American political ritual that has occurred every four years since George Washington's first presidential inaugural in 1789.  National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the history and symbolism of presidential inaugurations from Washington. 



For many Americans, the simple act of a new or re-elected president taking the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building has come to symbolize the peaceful transfer of power and the continuity of American democracy.


Marvin Kranz, a historian with the Library of Congress told VOA, "I would say that this is one of the great events in what we might call civil religion in this country.  Even though most of the presidents have talked about being inaugurated under the auspices of Almighty God, nevertheless it is basically a very civil ceremony and it is something that takes place every four years, war or peace, no matter what."


The process of the inauguration: the oath-taking, inaugural address, the parade and formal balls that follow, have often helped the nation heal the political wounds in the wake of divisive elections, dating back to the early days of the republic.


Again, Marvin Kranz: "We have done this time and time again.  Every four years since 1789 and there has never been a revolution, there has never been a chance of an armed fight.  It simply has taken place.” 


Mr. Kranz gave this example of the least-accepted behavior: “When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801, John Adams, the previous president who was defeated for re-election, kind of snuck out of Washington and was not present.  These days, even though they may not care for each other, the former president, if there has been a change, rides with the president from the White House to the inaugural stand."


When an incumbent president has been defeated, political experts say it is important for the public to see victor and vanquished standing together at the inaugural ceremony as a testament to the country's stability and political continuity, regardless of the outcome of the election.


That spirit was also on display at President Bush's first inaugural four years ago when the man he narrowly beat, outgoing Vice President Al Gore, stood on the same platform along with the outgoing president, Bill Clinton.


The highlight of the inaugural ceremony is usually the president's inaugural address, a tradition that historian Marvin Kranz says began with the first U.S. president, George Washington. "It has become a custom.  Washington, in his first inaugural address, gave a real address.  Now, in his second inaugural address, he had two paragraphs.  So, that is the shortest.”


Times have changed adds Mr. Kranz. “But it simply has been accepted and every president since that time has written an inaugural address."


Historian Kranz says what usually makes an inaugural address memorable is that it is considered a speech for the times.


Among those best remembered is Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."


In 1933, a new president faced a different challenge.  Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural at the height of the Great Depression and he urged Americans not to give in to fear and despair with the phrase, "... the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."


In 1961, incoming-President John Kennedy used his inaugural address to encourage Americans to enlist in public service in what became the rallying cry for a generation. "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country."


Four years ago, President Bush sought to unify the country in the wake of his closely contested election victory over Al Gore. "Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today.  To make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life."


With a more comfortable election victory this time, many analysts expect the president to be less open to compromise as he pushes a conservative agenda for tax and pension reform.


Thomas Mann monitors the U.S. political scene at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think this president is very ambitious in his policy and political designs but he is very well rooted in a view of what ought to be done that really prevents him from reaching out for new ideas and compromises with Democrats,” said Mr. Mann. “He is happy to welcome Democrats to support his proposals but he has no interest in compromising those proposals."


But there will be plenty of time for the divisive political battles after the inauguration.


Historian Marvin Kranz says the inauguration is generally a time when Americans put aside their political differences and recognize the stability and continuity of their democracy. "And it is part and parcel of what we are as Americans because we accept this sense of change,” said Mr. Kranz.


He added, “We know it is a legitimate change and we accept it.  Even in times of stress, we recognize this.  And those of us who might be in opposition to the new person who comes into office, he is still the president of all of us and we have to live under the new rules that are established."


Security is expected to be extremely tight for the first presidential inauguration since the 2001 terrorist attacks.  In addition, there is also concern about anti-Bush protestors who say they will turn their backs to the president as he passes along the inaugural parade route.


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