The most awkward inaugurations before Trump vs Biden

Not all presidential transitions and swearing-in ceremonies have been without a hitch, as history shows

Gino Spocchia
Monday 21 December 2020 15:25 GMT
Biden's chief of staff says inauguration will be 'scaled down' due to coronavirus

Thousands could descend on Washington DC in almost a month's time to witness what could be a bizarre inauguration as Joe Biden is sworn-in as the 46th US president.

The proceedings, already complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic, will throw a spotlight on the mutual antipathy between the president-elect and President Donald Trump.

But Trump has suggested he might not even attend the ceremony.

That would create a highly awkward swearing-in — but history has seen some pretty strange or acrimonious ceremonies in the past.

President Thomas Jefferson

When president John Adams and vice-president Thomas Jefferson stood against one another in the 1800 election, the political divide between Federalists and Republicans had not been higher.  

Adams, who had served as vice-president to George Washington - the original US president and Founding Father - was bitter at an election loss to Jefferson, whose supporters had referred to Adams as “hideous [and] hermaphroditical.”

Republicans, keen to see Adams leave the White House, wrote in newspapers that the then-president was associated with the aristocracy and the British crown.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was labelled “mean-spirited" by Adams’ backers, who supported the one-term president’s bid - and lost. But only after the House of Representatives voted in Jeffersons’ favour, following a tie.

By the time Jefferson was due to be inaugurated as president in Washington DC - the nation’s new capital - relations between the pair were so low that Adams did not attend the ceremony.

According to the White House Historical Association, Adams departed the capital at around 4am on March 4, 1801, hours before proceedings were due to start, and was nowhere to be seen. Some Historians have suggested that Adams wanted to avoid confrontation on the day.

It took more than a decade for the two men to talk to one another, while Jefferson went on to serve two terms as president.

President John Quincy Adams

The 1828 election was a rematch between president John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, whose campaigns in 1824 and 1828 were among the most bitter ever witnessed.

Jackson, a military general, had been deprived of the presidency in 1824 by the “corrupt bargain” between Qunicy Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay, who had also contested the race along with William H. Crawford.

Clay, having come last among the four men, was eliminated from the 1824 race, but went on to secure Quincy Adams’ win in the House of Representatives that - somewhat unsurprisingly - decided the election for the former president’s son over Jackson, who secured the most votes, but not a majority.

He went on to win the 1828 race, which he pitched as a battle between the “people” and Quincy Adams, according to the University of Virginia’s research institute, The Miller Center.

Jackson, whose marriage and slave ownership came under scrutiny on the campaign trail, still won that contest in a landslide, leading to Quincy Adams’ swift departure from Washington DC on inauguration day in 1829, as had president Adams in 1801.

And so, Quincy Adams became only the second American president to skip his successor’s inauguration.

President Franklin Pierce

The Democratic president was dealt a rough hand in the 1852 presidential process, having witnessed a two-car locomotive almost decapitate his 11-year-old son, Benny, who was killed.

According to the Washington Post, Benny’s death took such a toll on Franklin Pierce that he could not swear his oath on the Bible during his inauguration, and the affair went on to shape the New Hampshire statesman’s short presidency.

Why? Because he was convinced that he had angered God, and had published him for past sins with his son’s death.

His wife Jane also believed Benny’s death was the price they had paid for Pierce’s election win against Winfield Scott, the Whig nominee, and was not seen at her husband’s inauguration in Washington DC.

Vice-president elect William R King was also unable to attend the inaugural ceremonies, having dashed to Havana, the Cuban capital, with tuberculosis so bad that he was sworn into office there on 24 March, 1853.

He died on 18 April, 1853, one day after returning to his home in Alabama, and his position in the Pierce administration went without a replacement.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the inaugural ball was cancelled.

President Ulysses S. Grant

The unpopular outgoing president in 1869, Andrew Johson, was the third person to avoid his successor’s inauguration.

The reason? Because his successor Ulysses S. Grant had refused to ride in the same carriage as Johnson, on the way to the inauguration ceremony in Washington DC.

Johnson, who was impeached, remained in the White House during the ceremony to sign legislation even as his arch rival was sworn-in to replace him, some meters away.

According to the Library of Congress, the ceremony was the coldest inauguration day to occur in March, when temperatures were as low as 16 degrees Fahrenheit (or -8.8 degrees Celsius).

Grant, a commanding general, went on to win another election in 1872.

President Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin D Roosevelt became the 32nd president on the constitutionally prescribed date, 4 March 1933, and was the last man to do so, thanks to the 20th Amendment.

Franklin D Roosevelt is inaugurated as president for the first time in 1933
Franklin D Roosevelt is inaugurated as president for the first time in 1933 (Getty Images)

The constitutional changes would move inauguration days to 20 January - the same day they have been held since.  

Herbert Hoover, his predecessor as president, had been described as “fat, timid, capon” by Roosevelt, who had himself been called a “chameleon on plaid” by Hoover, as TIME reported.

The challenger went on to win the 1932 contest amid economic turmoil that would largely tarnish Hoover’s legacy - the Great Depression.

When the pair met at the White House after Hoover’s election loss, the situation was a little awkward, with Hoover having spent months trying to convince Roosevelt to abandon his “New Deal” proposals, which he did not do.

An angry Roosevelt said his son James “wanted to punch him [Hoover] in the eye.” according to accounts reported by the Washington Post.

No surprises then, that Hoover and Roosevelt sat side-by-side in silence, as they made their way to the latter’s swearing-in ceremony. Although the two men did share a blanket.

President Dwight Eisenhower

Henry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had worked together as World War II ended, and helped create Nato, but could not continue cordial relations on the campaign trail in 1952, which turned sour.

At this point, the Republican party had been without an election win in twenty years, and Eisenhower - a decorated military commander - was the party’s candidate, and went on to win.

He had turned down a proposition from Truman in 1948, who suggested Eisenhwoer become the Democratic party’s next presidential nominee.

But Truman, the Democratic president, was bitter at the rebuttal, and went on to condemn his counterpart’s response to comments made by senator Joe McCarthy.

"I thought he might make a good President," Truman said at the time, “[but] he has betrayed almost everything I thought he stood for."

The transition wasn’t smooth either, with Eisenhower skipping lunch with Truman at the White House, and on inauguration day, refused to greet Truman before they left together for the ceremony.

President Ronald Reagan

As newspaper reports described it, working relations between president Jimmy Carter and president-elect Ronald Reagan were “very good” prior to the 1980 contest, but came undone as the transition process wore on.

Reagan, who was swept to power with 489 votes in the Electoral College, was said to have been “inattentive” when he met Carter at the White House, according to a historian, Douglas Brinkley.

Republican adviser Richard Darman recalled in a New York Times article in 2000 that Carter had spoken to Reagan “like a concerned Sunday School teacher”, and recounted Reagan’s rebuttal to receiving intelligence briefings at 7am each day.

'Well, he's sure going to have to wait a long while for me,” Reagan told Carter, of the CIA officer’s briefings.

Tension between the pair came to a head days later, when Nancy Reagan was reported to have hinted that the Carters moved out of the White House weeks before inauguration day because she wanted to redecorate.  

The president-elect's son Ronald, meanwhile, told reporters he would refuse to shake Carter's hand because the outgoing president had ''the morals of a snake.''

President Barack Obama

Although the 2013 inauguration wasn’t bitter, president Barack Obama’s second swearing-in went down with one awkward moment, thanks to singer Beyonce.  

Americans and viewers across the world had applauded her performance of the US national anthem, the Star Spangled-Banner, which saw her tear out her ear-piece as she reached for the song’s peak.  

But within 24 hours she was revealed to have lip-synced on stage to the US Marine Corps band.

She later explained that, despite widespread disappointment, she had done so because she was a perfectionist and was unable to prepare properly, while most inauguration ceremony performances in the past have been prerecorded.

President Donald Trump

If reports that he will boycott president-elect Biden’s ceremony next month are true, Donald Trump will only have attended one inauguration — his own.

The 2017 event was already a strained affair, with many Democrats having avoided showing-up on the day.

They had included the late congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis, who said Trump was not a "legitimate president". The dispute continued until Lewis’s death this summer, when the president declined to pay respects to Lewis, who he said “should have come” to his inauguration.

And that was not all.  Trump’s speech, in which he spoke about “American carnage”, was so unusual that ex-president George W Bush appeared to remark that it was “some weird s***”.

The Trump administration then spent its first few days claiming that inauguration crowd had been the biggest ever, which was demonstrably false.  In defence of false claims, then-White House press secretary Kellyanne Conway said such arguments were “alternative facts”.

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