Nixon Pigeon-Proofed His Inaugural Parade Route
Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost (HarperCollins).
Fun facts about inaugurations past:
Weirdest moment: At Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural parade five B 36 bombers staged simulated attacks on the White House, flying within 1500 feet of the building. Unsurprisingly this is the only known instance where something like this occurred.
Oddest fact: Richard Nixon’s inaugural parade route was pigeon-proofed, officials spraying a chemical on Pennsylvania Avenue that the birds found offensive. The public was assured the spray wasn’t fatal.
Presidents who had a good time at their inaugurals: George Washington and William Henry Harrison, the only presidents prior to LBJ to dance at their inaugurals.* (Two others, James Polk and James Buchanan, banned dancing in the White House.)
President who had a bad time at his inaugural: Buchanan, who had to take a glass of brandy just prior to his swearing in to steady his nerves. Two weeks earlier he’d developed dysentery.
A case of forgetfulness: Buchanan’s inauguration was delayed twenty minutes when officials realized they’d forgotten to pick up the outgoing president, Franklin Pierce. He was found at the Willard Hotel and rushed to the platform.
Firsts: First to hold his inauguration outdoors: Monroe. First mother to see her son inaugurated: James Garfield's. First president to wear a regular business suit at his inauguration: LBJ.
Illicit chapter in the secret history of past inaugurals: FDR saw to it that his one-time paramour, Lucy Mercer, was invited to each of his four inaugurations. She attended every one, without, of course, Eleanor’s knowledge.
Next to worst rumor: Rutherford B. Hayes, inaugurated just two days after his selection by Congress in the disputed election of 1876, was warned that his defeated rival, Samuel B. Tilden, planned to stage a coup d’etat. Tilden stayed home, but many of his disappointed supporters showed up and gave Hayes a Bronx cheer, drowning out his address. (The worst rumor was the suspicion that Lincoln would be killed before he was sworn in.)
Biggest comedown for a new president: when he went upstairs at the White House to go to sleep Franklin Pierce discovered there was nowhere he could; none of the beds had been made. Four years later he moved out of the White House a day early so his successor could get a head start.
Most misleading line: “we are all federalists, we are all republicans.” Within weeks of delivering this memorable bipartisan message, Thomas Jefferson began the wholesale firing of dozens of Federalist officeholders.
Most memorable lines: “With malice toward none; with charity for all” (Lincoln); “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (FDR); “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (JFK); “our long national nightmare is over” (Gerald Ford).
Incoming and outgoing presidents who had the least to say to each other: Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams (who declined to attend Jackson’s inauguration). FDR and Herbert Hoover (who sat stone-faced on the ride with his successor up Pennsylvania Avenue). Ike and Harry Truman (who declined, at the last minute, to go to Ike at his hotel, forcing Ike to go to him at the White House).
Two shortest inaugural addresses: Washington’s second (135 words); FDR’s fourth (573 words). Longest inaugural address: William Henry Harrison’s, which lasted over two hours.
Worst cases of bad timing: The day Martin van Buren was inaugurated the Panic of 1837 struck, closing banks and bankrupting businesses. Four years later, another panic struck, clouding the inauguration of William Henry Harrison, who was informed that the federal government was going bankrupt, forcing him to convene a special session of Congress to appropriate emergency funds.
Most honest confession: Following his inaugural William Howard Taft returned to the White House, plopped down in a chair and declared: “I am president now, and tired of being kicked around.”
Most deceptive moment: Buchanan pledged to abide by an upcoming Supreme Court ruling on slavery no matter how the Court ruled. Actually, he already knew the outcome having improperly pressured two justices to vote his way. (The ruling was in the infamous Dred Scot case.)
Caught fibbing: During the campaign Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a story about a veteran buried in Arlington Cemetery. Reagan was told the story wasn’t true. He didn’t care and told it again at his inauguration.
Clearest sign of how things have changed from the time of the Founding Fathers: After Jefferson delivered his address and took the oath he walked back to his hotel for lunch. His usual seat was taken by a guest and Jefferson had to stand and wait patiently until a female diner volunteered her seat.
Saddest facts about inaugurals past: Three presidents suffered deaths in the family around the time of their election. Andrew Jackson’s wife died as a result, claimed Jackson, of the opposition’s cruel campaign of slander and innuendo. Both Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge lost sons. Pierce’s son died in a train crash before his parent’s eyes. Pierce’s wife blamed the president for the boy’s death, calling it God’s revenge. The husband-in-chief had lied to her. He’d claimed he hadn’t lifted a finger to win the nomination when of course, he had. She refused to attend his inaugural and delayed moving into the White House for a month. Coolidge’s son died from poisoning after a getting a blister while playing tennis on the White House grounds.
Finally, regrets: Little James Madison, nervous and introverted, remarked at the time of his inauguration, “I would much rather be in bed.”
*Harrison caught cold at his inaugural and died a month later.
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