January 20, 2009

44th Inauguration Continues Traditions of Past

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Many changes have taken place since the first inauguration of President George Washington in 1789. With the events scheduled for today’s swearing in of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama’s inauguration stands to be not only the most watched in U.S. history, but also the most expensive. The price tag of this inauguration will likely top $150 million.
The ceremony has evolved considerably since 1789. On the bicentennial year of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, this year’s ceremony will pay tribute to the president who ended slavery and was the first to include African-Americans in his inaugural parade. In addition to paying his respects at the Lincoln Memorial last week, Obama requested to use Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural bible as he is sworn into office.
The Inaugural Address, a tradition carried out by presidents since the first inauguration, has at times been delivered to crowds barely numbering one thousand, but more than 2 million are expected to attend this year. The most memorable of these speeches often come during trying times. In addressing the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” More recently, Bill Clinton declared “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
Given the billions around the globe that will watch Obama’s speech, the bar has been raised for him to craft a speech that will inspire and further maintain his image as a gifted orator. In preparation for the highly anticipated speech, Obama is said to have spent time studying Lincoln’s second inaugural address during his train ride to Washington.
Several inaugurations have come as a result of undesirable circumstances. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony was held aboard Air Force One while it was on Love Field Airport in Dallas just hours after President Kennedy was assassinated. President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia only one month after his inauguration, which many claim was due to abnormally cold winds at the ceremony, Harrison’s lack of appropriate winter clothing and the fact that his Inaugural Address was the longest to date with 8,445 words. He became the first president to die in office.
Aside from the swearing in ceremony and the Inaugural Address — the most well-known components of the Presidential Inauguration — other events scheduled for today have evolved into tradition over the last two centuries. In the past, the Inaugural Parade only consisted of military escorts and local militias. Then, in 1841, during Harrison’s inauguration, floats, political clubs and groups of college students also marched in the parade. The Inaugural Ball, long considered a highlight of Washington society, became tradition in 1809 during the inauguration of President James Madison, in which a gala was held at Long’s Hotel. Tonight, there will be 11 different official balls organized and hosted by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
Given the widespread sense of hope surrounding Obama, the world has high expectations for today’s inauguration. As Obama’s daughter Malia reportedly said to him last week, “First African-American president better be good.”