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The Globe and Mail

10 surprising facts about presidential inaugurations

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy at the latter’s presidential inauguration party in 1961.


1. It's in the Constitution

The presidential oath of office is the only such oath found in the Constitution. The founding document says that, upon assuming the presidency, the executive must say: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The Constitution suggests other officers, such as members of Congress, swear to uphold the document, but doesn't specify what they should say. ("So help me god," often spoken by a president, is not technically part of the oath.)

2. The wildest White House party

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Andrew Jackson was a bit of a rock star by 1829, so it's no surprise he invited everyone (and we mean everyone) over to his new house after getting sworn in. The crowds were so thick Mr. Jackson could barely get in, and the place turned into a riot after punch and liquor were served. Mr. Jackson fled out a window for his own safety, and the partiers were only drawn out of the White House when the drinks were carried out to the front lawn.

3. Kennedy and Sinatra

There's no shortage of stories about John F. Kennedy and his celebrity buddies. Frank Sinatra, near the height of the career, threw JFK's inaugural gala in 1961. Check out the picture at the top of this article for the two hanging out (and presidential historian Michael Beschloss recently tweeted a picture of Mr. Sinatra lighting up Mr. Kennedy's cigar). Twenty years later, Mr. Sinatra did the same for President Ronald Reagan.

4. The shortest speech

The shortest inaugural speech ever was George Washington's second, in 1793. It's 135 words and can be summed up as: "Thanks, let's get on with this."

5. The longest speech

The longest inaugural speech ever was by the president with the shortest time in office. William Henry Harrison gave a 8,445-word address for hours on a chilly day without a coat. As legend has it, this is why he caught pneumonia and died just a month into office in 1841.

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6. Technology firsts

Presidential inaugurations are also a measure of how far technology has come.

  • The first covered by telegraph: James Polk in 1845.
  • The first photographed: James Buchanan in 1857.
  • The first captured by motion-picture camera: William McKinley in 1897.
  • The first with telephone lines installed: Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
  • The first wherein the president arrived by car: Warren G. Harding in 1921.
  • The first broadcast by radio: Calvin Coolidge in 1925.
  • The first recorded by talking newsreel: Herbert Hoover in 1929.
  • The first broadcast on television: Harry S. Truman in 1949.
  • The first broadcast on the Internet: Bill Clinton in 1997.

7. The Obama re-do

Barack Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts verbally stepped on each other during the 2009 inauguration, leaving Mr. Obama's staff wondering if the flubbed oath was legally binding. To err on the side of caution, they invited Chief Justice Roberts to pop by the White House the next day to redo the oath. "Are you ready to take the oath?" Chief Justice Roberts said that day, according to the New York Times. "I am," Mr. Obama replied. "And we're going to do it very slowly."

8. Roberts takes it very seriously

The tradition of the oath of office being administered by the Supreme Court's Chief Justice dates back to John Adams in 1797. The current chief justice, John Roberts, takes it very seriously. According to Jeremy Toobin's book The Oath, Chief Justice Roberts rehearsed the oath so many times at home it drove his family crazy. (The snafu on the day of, apparently, was caused by staffers not getting the correct version to Mr. Obama ahead of time.)

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9. Reusing Bibles

Most presidents have taken the oath of office with their hands on a family Bible, but a few recent presidents-elect have used books from earlier, historic presidents. Barack Obama used Lincoln's Bible in 2009, while four presidents have used George Washington's: Warren G. Harding in 1921, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, Jimmy Carter in 1977 and George H.W. Bush in 1989.

10. Presidential fashion

Finally, here's one for you fashionistas: John Quincy Adams was the first to wear long trousers. Yes, it took until 1825 and 10 inaugurations for presidents to ditch breeches that cut off just below the knees.

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