Inaugural Traditions: Dude, Where's My Top Hat?

Inauguration day traditions, bloopers and head wear.

January 13, 2009, 7:05 PM

Jan. 19, 2009— -- As far as the Constitution is concerned, all Barack Obama needs to do Tuesday before "he enters on the execution of his office" is take a 35-word oath and call it day. No Bible, no speech, no parade, no ball.

That legally an inauguration starts with "I do solemnly swear" and ends with "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," however, fails to capture the majesty of the moment, the continuity of American democracy and the singular importance of a tradition that began 220 years ago when George Washington reportedly ignored the Constitution and added another four words to the oath of office.

Obama too is expected to add the four words "so help me God," which have been uttered by every president-elect since Washington with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt. That extemporaneous amendment -- amid the concerts, parades and balls -- is perhaps the one moment all day where the new president acknowledges just what he has gotten himself into.

Washington -- being Washington -- also set the precedent of delivering an inaugural address. While every subsequent president has given a speech after the oath of office, few have followed in the first president's footsteps and kept it brief. At 135 words, Washington's second inaugural ranks as the shortest in history.

The longest inaugural address was delivered by William Henry Harrison. It was 8,445 words, nearly two hours long and -- if that wasn't bad enough -- likely killed him. In April 1841, one month after he was sworn in, Harrison died of pneumonia, believed to have been brought on by exposure to the elements on a cold and rainy Inauguration Day.

Other deaths attributed to the inauguration include hats and several canaries, which according to inauguration historian Jim Bendat, were brought to cheer up Ulysses S. Grant's 1873 inaugural ball but froze to death instead.

"In 1873, at Grant's inaugural ball, it was a bitter cold night and someone forgot to heat the place. The food was too cold, and everyone was bumping into each other because they were dancing in their long overcoats. But, the saddest thing of all was someone got the idea of having canaries to merrily chirp away for the guests, but alas the poor canaries froze," said Bendat, author of "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President From 1789-2009."

What's With the Weird Hats?

Popular belief has long held that John F. Kennedy killed the hat, once routinely worn by American men in public, by not donning head wear to his inauguration in 1961. But photographs prove otherwise. Not only did Kennedy wear a hat to his inauguration, but it was that most traditional of formal hats, a top hat.

"I don't know where that started or why people believe Kennedy killed the hat," Bendat said. "There are plenty of photos showing Kennedy in a top hat, thought he took it off for his address. If you're looking for someone to blame, blame Johnson."

Top hats were for decades mainstays of presidential inaugurations, petering out with Lyndon Johnson, who did not wear one.

If you're looking for truly weird, once-every-four-years head gear, look no further than the justices of the Supreme Court.

Some of the justices, such as Antonin Scalia at George W. Bush's second inauguration in 2005, don silk or wool skullcaps with peaked corners. The justices are generally seen in public together and in their robes only once a year at the State of the Union address or the inauguration, so they make quite a picture in their black robes and skullcaps.

When contacted by to find out which if any of the justices would be wearing caps to Tuesday's swearing-in, the court's public information office said, "It is a matter of personal preference and it is not known who will be wearing skullcaps to this year's inauguration."

Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in Obama Tuesday and Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest and longest serving member of the Court, will swear in Vice President-elect Joe Biden. The Constitution does not specify who has to administer the oath of office, but the chief justice has done the honors for the president since 1797, when John Adams, the second president, took the oath of office.

During the campaign, opponents spread a rumor that Obama would be sworn in on a Koran. In truth, Obama will take the oath using the same Bible on which Abraham Lincoln was administered the oath.

Hussein Meets Lincoln

Washington's Inaugural Bible, which he kissed after the oath, has been used by four subsequent presidents including George W. Bush. Nixon was sworn in on two Bibles, a veritable stack, though it didn't seem to keep him honest.

Obama has said that he will likely be sworn in using his full name, Barrack Hussein Obama, including a middle name that was rarely used during the campaign except by his enemies.

"I think the tradition is that they [incoming presidents being sworn in] use all three names, and I will follow the tradition, not trying to make a statement one way or the other. I'll do what everybody else does," Obama told reporters from the Chicago Sun Times and Los Angeles Times in December.

There is no set rule on using one's full name. Jimmy Carter was sworn in as Jimmy Carter and not James Earl Carter, and Ronald Wilson Reagan went with Ronald Reagan. Obama's three most recent predecessors -- George Herbert Walker Bush, William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton and George Walker Bush -- all went with their full birth names.

After a morning prayer service at St. Johns Church and coffee at the White House, President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama will ride together to the Capitol.

By tradition, the outgoing president sits on the right side of the limousine's back seat and the president-elect on the left.

Historically, as president of the Senate, the vice president was sworn in at a separate ceremony inside the Senate Chamber and then delivered an inaugural address. Since 1937, the same year Inauguration Day was moved from March 4 to January 20, the vice president has been sworn in outside the Capitol along with the president and no longer makes a speech.

If past vice presidential addresses are any indication, nixing the veep's address was probably for the best.

"The most famous, or infamous, vice presidential inaugural address was Andrew Johnson's in 1865," Bendat said. "Johnson wasn't feeling well on Inauguration Day and medicine back then was different. Someone suggested he drink some whiskey to take care of his ailments. By the time he made his speech, he was drunk and rambling incoherently. No one could understand what he was saying. It was pretty embarrassing."

Fires, Gaffes and Poetry

In keeping with an old tradition Obama has invited two religious leaders to give the invocation and benediction prayers, pastors Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery respectively. In keeping with a newer tradition started with Kennedy, Obama also has invited poet Elizabeth Alexander.

With any luck Obama's preachers and poet will have an easier go of things than those Kennedy tapped in 1961.

While Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston, was delivering the invocation the lectern caught fire -- the result of faulty electrical wiring -- sending marshals scurrying to douse the flames.

Robert Frost, who was 87 in 1961, had written a poem especially for the occasion. A bright glare off snow that had fallen the night before prevented Frost from being able to read the poem he had written, "Dedication," opting instead to deliver "The Gift Outright," a poem he had written earlier and committed to memory.

Frost's quick thinking is often remembered, but what is less remembered is that the aged poet accidentally dedicated the poem to John Finley, a Harvard professor, instead of Kennedy.

Frost's was not the only gaffe that day. Instead of promising to uphold the Constitution and support government "without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion," during the recitation of his oath, Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson said "without any mental reservation whatever."

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