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Author Jim Bendat on how Inauguration Day has evolved

January 18, 2001
7 p.m. EST
inauguration Photo

(CNN) – President-elect George W. Bush will become the 43rd president of the United States during ceremonies conducted in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, January 20. Inaugural events -- which include a parade, concerts and balls – began Thursday, January 18 and continue through Sunday, January 21.

Jim Bendat is the author of "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of our President." He has contributed articles to publications such as the Los Angeles Times and The New Republic. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he is a lawyer in the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office.

CNN Moderator: Were parades always part of the inaugural proceedings?

Jim Bendat: Actually, there was a sort of spontaneous parade for George Washington in 1789. And there was another for Thomas Jefferson in 1805. But the first official inaugural parade took place in 1809 with the inauguration of James Madison. Incidentally, 1809 also marked the very first inaugural ball, given by James Madison and his party-giving wife, Dolly Madison.

Question from chat room: Have inauguration ceremonies ever been interrupted by hecklers?

Jim Bendat: Not the ceremony itself, but Richard Nixon's inaugural parade was disrupted. There were demonstrations against Nixon and against the Vietnam War at both his inaugurations in 1969 and in 1973.

CNN Moderator: How has the role of the first lady on Inauguration Day changed?

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Jim Bendat: In 1909, William Howard Taft's wife, Nellie, became the first first lady to take the ride from the Capitol back to the White House with the new president. Then in 1917, President and Mrs. Wilson drove together in both directions, both from the White House to the Capitol for the ceremony and back.

I would also point out that in 1965, Lady Bird Johnson became the first first lady to hold the Bible as the president was sworn in. A precedent was set, for the first lady has held the Bible for every inauguration ever since.

Question from chat room: Has there ever been a blizzard on Inauguration Day?

Jim Bendat: Yes, there has. In 1909, there was a terrible snowstorm at the inauguration of William Howard Taft, causing the outdoor ceremony to be moved indoors to the Senate chambers. The weather was also so cold at Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985 that the ceremony was also moved indoors. That one took place inside the Capitol Rotunda.

CNN Moderator: There have been some contentious presidential transitions. Why didn't the Eisenhowers come into the White House for the traditional tea with the Trumans?

Jim Bendat: Great question. Dwight Eisenhower was very upset because someone had ordered his son John back from Korea to attend the ceremonies. Eisenhower, being a military man, felt that this was showing favoritism and special treatment toward his son. Eisenhower wanted to know why it had been done. Outgoing President Harry S. Truman said to Eisenhower, "The president of the United States ordered your son back from Korea. The president of the United States felt it would be right and proper for your son to witness the swearing in of his father to the presidency."

Question from chat room: Why did we move the inauguration from March to January?

Jim Bendat: The reason for the change was to make the lame-duck period shorter. The change took place with Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937. By that point in our history, it was felt that four months was way too long to wait for the inauguration.

CNN Moderator: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were close personal friends, yet Jefferson declined to ride with Madison to the swearing-in ceremony. Why?

Jim Bendat: In 1809, Madison did invite Jefferson to ride with him but Jefferson declined because he felt that doing so would divide the honors of the day. The first time that the outgoing and incoming presidents rode together to the Capitol was in 1837 when President Andrew Jackson accompanied President-elect Martin Van Buren.

Question from chat room: Have any inaugural balls gotten out of hand?

Jim Bendat: Yes. There have been times when things got quite lively. For example, at Ulysses S. Grant's first inaugural ball in 1869, a lack of security led to hundreds of guests losing their hats, coats and other valuables. There was also a stampede for food and no room for anyone to dance.

At Grant's second inaugural ball in 1873, someone forgot to heat the ballroom on a very, very cold night. All of the food froze and couples were forced to try to dance with their coats and hats still on. Not only that, about 100 canaries that had been brought to that inaugural to chirp away for the evening's guests froze to death.

Question from chat room: Whose inauguration was the first to be on radio? TV?

Jim Bendat: The first inauguration on radio took place in 1925. That was Calvin Coolidge's inauguration. Harry S. Truman's inauguration in 1949 was the first to be televised.

CNN Moderator: Please tell us about Mrs. Grover Cleveland's prediction that she and her husband would be returning to the White House after the next election.

Jim Bendat: Grover Cleveland was president between 1885 and 1889. On the day that his successor, Benjamin Harrison, became the new president, Mrs. Cleveland told the White House staff that she wanted them to take good care of everything -- the furnishings, the china, the crystal. And she also said, "I want to find everything just as it is now when my husband and I move back in here precisely four years from today."

Exactly four years later, on March 4, 1893, her prediction came true when Cleveland became the only president in our history to serve non-consecutive terms.

CNN Moderator: Please tell us about President Reagan's Super Bowl "appearance" in 1985.

Jim Bendat: In 1985, Ronald Reagan's second inauguration date fell on the exact same date as Super Bowl XIX between the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins. Whenever our inauguration date falls on a Sunday, as it did in 1985, the president is sworn in privately on Sunday and then again publicly the next day.

In 1985, in between the two ceremonies, President Reagan actually tossed the coin to start the Super Bowl. He flipped the coin from the White House as his image was displayed on the big video board at Stanford Stadium.

Question from chat room: I remember when Jimmy Carter got out of the car and walked along the parade route. Can you talk about that?

Jim Bendat: That is the only time that a president and first lady have walked the entire route. Since 1977, George and Barbara Bush walked part of the way, as did Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the Carters remain the only couple to walk the entire distance.

CNN Moderator: In your research, which inaugurations were the most memorable?

Jim Bendat: I think that the most unique inauguration was Calvin Coolidge's in 1923. He was visiting his father in a small town in Vermont when he learned that President Warren G. Harding had died. Our country never likes to be without a president for very long. Coolidge's father, John, was the local justice of the peace and a notary public. And so, by the light of an old kerosene lamp in the middle of the night, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his own father.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

Jim Bendat: Our Inauguration Day is very unique in the world. Many countries decide who their leaders will be through military coups or juntas or, if they have an election, it could come at any time of a given year.

In our country, we have a set pattern. Our election is always in November and our inauguration is always on January 20. I believe that our big day really shows the world what an orderly transition of power can be all about.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Jim Bendat.

Jim Bendat: I enjoyed it very much. Thank you for having me.

Jim Bendat joined the Allpolitics Chat via telephone from Washington, D.C. CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Thursday, January 18, 2001.



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