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US inaugurations: High drama and sore losers

  • Published at 04:57 pm January 19th, 2021
US Capitol
Preparations are made prior to a dress rehearsal ahead of the 59th Inaugural Ceremonies on the West Front at the US Capitol, in Washington, DC on January 18, 2021 AFP

On Wednesday, Biden will be sworn in and the Trump presidency will end

Outgoing US President Donald Trump will be far from the first to boycott his successor Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday -- but his absence will be the first since 1869.

In fact, many past inaugurations were conducted in a febrile atmosphere, with some turning to high drama:

The boycotters

Presidential bad blood goes back a long way.

In 1801 the second US president John Adams snubbed his successor Thomas Jefferson, leaving the White House at dawn after calling his former vice-president as "a mean-spirited, low-lived son of a half-breed Indian squaw."

His son John Quincy Adams won a disputed election in 1824 against Andrew Jackson, who claimed the vote had been stolen.

Four years later Jackson turned the tables after an even more contentious campaign.

Like father, Adams junior was a bad loser and left the White House the night before the inauguration.

Jackson, who brought his slaves to Washington with him, is a hero of Trump's. His portrait hangs by his desk in the Oval Office.

In 1841 the Democrat Martin Van Buren was a no-show at the inauguration of William H. Harrison, who caught pneumonia and died after giving the longest-ever inaugural speech in wet, cold weather without a hat, coat and gloves.

Andrew Johnson was the last boycotter in 1869. He refused to go after his successor Ulysses Grant snubbed his offer to share a carriage to the Capitol.

Lincoln's near miss

Abraham Lincoln gave a group of assassins waiting to kill him the slip on the way to his inauguration on March 4, 1865, only to find himself in the sights of the man who would eventually kill him when he got to Washington.

Actor John Wilkes Booth -- who would shoot Abraham Lincoln 41 days later at a theatre in the capital -- found himself standing above the president on the steps of the Capitol as he was sworn in for his second term.

Booth and his fellow Confederate plotters had previously tried to kidnap Lincoln.

With the American Civil War still raging, Booth said he regretted not having a gun at the inauguration as he had an "excellent chance... to kill the president if I had wished."

Kennedy on fire

There was also a premonition of the tragedy to come at John F Kennedy's inauguration in January 1961.

Tensions were also high as he was the first Catholic to be elected president, a major historic shift in a then deeply Protestant country. A fire on the podium led secret service agents to rush in fearing an assassination attempt.

Kennedy, who kept his cool, smiling and continuing his now legendary inauguration speech, was assassinated two years later.

Johnson sworn in on plane

Several hours after his death in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy's vice president Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One, parked on the tarmac of the city's airport.

The cold

The fatal Harrison speech of 1841 was not the only time the winter weather has played havoc with inaugurations.

Ronald Reagan's second in 1985 had to be held indoors in the White House with temperatures falling to minus 14°C. 

But it was positively spring-like in 1953 when Dwight Eisenhower was lassoed by Hollywood cowboy Montie Montana during his light-hearted parade.

Two oaths for Obama

Barack Obama, the first Black president, had to take his oath twice after a glitch at his 2009 ceremony.

Supreme Court chief John Roberts muddled the wording so he had to be sworn in again the next day in the White House. Herbert Hoover had the same problem in 1929.

Memorable quotes

Inauguration speeches have contained some of the most famous lines in American history.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," intoned Franklin D Roosevelt on March 4, 1933 with the US mired in the Depression.

"Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," declared Kennedy, the youngest ever elected president.

"American carnage stops right here," Trump promised at his inauguration in 2017, only to instigate the storming of the Capitol in the dying days of his term.

After Trump's dark and divisive speech, former president George W Bush turned to the defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and said, "That was some weird shit."

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