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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Don't Know Much About Inaugurations?

Jan 18, 2013
Originally published on January 18, 2013 3:00 pm



We are hoping your best dress is ready and your tux is pressed because President Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term on Monday. But even if you don't plan to attend any of the events, you can dress up and watch at home.

And here to get us ready is Kenneth C. Davis. He is the author of the best-selling "'Don't Know Much About" series of books. His latest is "Don't Know Much About the American Presidents." And he's with us now.

Welcome and Happy New Year to you.

KENNETH C. DAVIS: Happy New Year, Michel. And, by the way, a brown suit made in Connecticut with some white hose would be appropriate. That's what Washington wore the first time around. And a sword. I don't know, we've seen to have lost the sword in all of the inaugural traditions. Maybe somebody will try and bring that one back someday.

MARTIN: Somehow I doubt it. But...


MARTIN: You know, I said that the president will be sworn in on Monday but that's not quite right, is it?

DAVIS: That is correct. The president will be sworn in - as the Constitution requires -on January 20th, which is Sunday, but we are still a puritanical nation in some respects and we don't do such things in public on the Sabbath so Monday, of course, will be the public swearing in. The ceremony on, of course, Martin Luther King Day of this year, which the Obama White House announced that the president would be using Martin Luther King's Bible and Abraham Lincoln's Bible, I think adds a little historic weight to this occasion.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about both of those things. But first, why is the inauguration on January 20th? What's the importance of that? I understand it specified in the Constitution, but why?

DAVIS: That's right. And that was a change made to the Constitution because it used to be on March 4th. That was the original inauguration date. And the problem with that is when they created that date it made perfect sense. Travel was slow, communications was slow. But in 1861, it became an issue because the president, Lincoln, was elected and it was many, many months before he became president and, of course, some states have succeeded in the interim so he could not address that crisis. It comes up again in 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected and then not inaugurated until March 4th - months during the Great Depression, when there is a lame duck President Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt can't do anything to respond to the crisis, it was at that time they decided to change the constitution, move it to January 20th, shortening the period between the election and the inauguration.

MARTIN: Speaking of Mr. Lincoln, I understand that his second inauguration was disrupted - if I can put it that way?

DAVIS: Well, we can just say - to put it demurely - that Vice President Johnson, who was sworn in a little bit earlier that day in the Senate, had gotten into his cups. It's been suggested that his predecessor, as vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, invited him in for a cordial drink before his swearing in and he went a little bit too far. But the reports at the time were that Andrew Johnson was quite drunk at the time of Lincoln's inaugural and it was a bit of the scene.

Much more impressive that day was the fact a great precedent was set and a historic one - was the first time that African Americans marched in the inaugural parade in 1865. A group of black soldiers participated in the parade, as did some local Masons. And, of course, if you've seen the new Lincoln movie, this is not a spoiler, it's obviously about the passage of the 13th Amendment, things had changed so much between 1861 when it was a battle for the Union and 1865 - Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation - and now this was clearly a war about slavery. So the presence of African-Americans in that parade is a significant one.

MARTIN: Well, when did women first make a public presence in these festivities?

DAVIS: Well, just as women had to wait to vote, they had to wait to march in the inaugural parade. It wasn't until 1917, Woodrow Wilson's second inaugural, that women participated officially in an inaugural parade - even then they could not yet vote.

MARTIN: And I understand it wasn't until 2009 that the inauguration had a female MC.

DAVIS: That's correct. In recent years the ceremonies are under the joint Congressional committee, and up until that time, when I believe it was Senator Feinstein became the master of ceremonies, no women had ever done that before. Interesting, no woman, of course, has given the oath of office to date. Although, I believe this year Justice Sotomayor will give the oath to Vice President Biden. Only one woman has actually given the presidential oath of office, and that was fatefully in November 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One, a local district judge Sarah Hughes, I believe is her name, administered the oath of office to Johnson following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

MARTIN: Wow. That, I mean it's just all these wonderful tidbits. I don't know how you can stand it. I mean how do you stand it?


MARTIN: But, you know, thinking of back in 2009 when it was so cold, and I know people eagerly await the president's speech. But on the other hand, when you're standing out there in the cold, any speech is too long. But one speech was really too long.

DAVIS: Really tragically too long in some accounts. William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in the history. Clocked in at more than 8,000 words. Took in more than two hours to read. That was on March 4th. By April 4th, he unfortunately contracted pneumonia and was dead. Longest inaugural address - shortest presidency, you know, a month long.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, these are very interesting times for all the reasons that you've cited. But one of the things that a lot of people are talking about now, is just many people believe that our government has just become dysfunctional. And I wonder if that is something that is new or have we seen this before?

DAVIS: Well, there is nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to American politics. I'm reminded, first of all, just 20 years ago Bill Clinton gave his first inaugural address and talked about the deadlock in American politics. But if you go back to the early days of the republic, you see this problem comes up time and time again. It's one of the reasons we have a president in the first place. The men who wrote the Constitution and invented the presidency wanted someone who could act with what they called vigor and energy. They knew that Congress, if left to its own devices, would usually dither and debate, and that's why we have a president in the first place.

MARTIN: Kenneth C. Davis is the creator and author of the best-selling "Don't Know Much About" series. His latest book is "Don't Know Much About the American Presidents." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Kenneth C. Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you so much. It's been my pleasure.

MARTIN: Let's finish our conversation by hearing Marian Anderson singing the national anthem. She was the African-American contralto. Here's a clip of her singing at President John Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Here it is.


MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light. What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight. O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave. O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.