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US Presidential Inaugurations Have Grown Considerably Over Time

Preparations are nearly complete for President George Bush's second inauguration on January 20.  Inauguration activities have grown considerably since the early days of the republic when a presidential inauguration consisted of a simple swearing-in ceremony.

Presidential inaugurations are mandated by the U.S. Constitution.  It requires that the president repeat a 35-word oath in which the chief executive promises to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The president must take the oath of office by noon on January 20th.  Prior to 1937, Inauguration Day was March 4.

The first presidential inauguration took place in 1789 when the nation's first chief executive, George Washington, took the oath of office in New York City.

President Washington initiated a number of inaugural traditions that include taking the oath of office while placing his hand on a Christian Bible.

Marvin Kranz is a historian at the Library of Congress.

"And George Washington set certain precedents.  For example, he was about to be inaugurated and he said, 'My goodness, how do I take the oath of office?'  And he said, 'Gee, I need a Bible.'  And so they had to run out and see where they could find a Bible, which they found in the local Masonic lodge.  And that Bible has been used by some other presidents since that time," says Mr. Kranz.

Traditionally, the oath of office is administered by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.  Chief Justice William Rehnquist says he will carry out that duty this year despite his ongoing battle with thyroid cancer.

The inaugural ceremony will be held outside on the West front of the U.S. Capitol building before a large crowd.   Ronald Reagan began that tradition in 1981.  Prior to that, the inaugural ceremony was held on the East Front of the Capitol facing the Supreme Court.

Historian Marvin Kranz says inaugural traditions rarely change once they are established. 

"It has been tradition for well over 100 years to hold it at the Capitol,” he notes.  “The only exception was Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.  He was kind of ill and they held it in the White House where he was sworn in."

After the oath-taking ceremony, the president delivers the inaugural address, which usually lasts 15 to 20 minutes.

The shortest inaugural address on record was that of George Washington at his second inaugural in 1793.  It lasted about two minutes.

The longest address was given by William Henry Harrison in 1841.  He spoke for nearly two hours.

Historian Marvin Kranz says Harrison's determination to finish his speech in bad weather proved to be his undoing.

"Of course, it was the longest address and the shortest presidency,” he points out.  “He died a month later.  He probably contracted a cold out there.  He was a real 'he-man', he stood outside in a biting wind without an overcoat and delivered his inaugural address and a month later he was dead."

President Harrison also enjoyed the first official inaugural parade, which moves down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.  It is a tradition that evolved from impromptu parades that greeted early Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

This year's parade involves 11,000 marchers including 45 marching bands, floats and members of the U.S. armed forces.

Kevin Sheridan is with the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which plans all inaugural events.  He says the U.S. military will receive special recognition during this year's inauguration.

"And it is celebration of our democracy, it is a celebration of freedom,” he says.  “This year, we are extraordinarily [especially] honoring the men and women that are serving our country overseas and at home in our military.  But it is a celebration overall of freedom and our democracy."

Inauguration Day is capped off by a series of formal balls where the president and First Lady make a brief appearance and greet supporters who often pay hundreds of dollars to attend.

Marvin Kranz says the tradition of the inaugural ball has also grown over time.

"Now, up until relatively recently, I mean up to the mid-20th century, you normally had one inaugural ball held in a major site here in Washington.  But in more recent times, to get more people in and I suppose to raise more money for the party in power, you have a variety of inaugural balls all over town and the president makes an effort to visit all of them and traffic in Washington on inaugural ball night is something fearsome."

Organizers estimate this year's inauguration will cost about $40 million dollars, with most of it raised from private sources including corporations and other wealthy donors.

Security is expected to be the tightest in history given this is the first presidential inauguration since the September, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Organizers expect about 200,000 people to attend inaugural events over a three-day period that include the oath-taking ceremony, the parade, concerts and the inaugural balls.

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