President Jimmy Carter speaks at his inauguration ceremony at the East Portico of the US Capitol in 1977. His predecessor, Gerald Ford, is seated on the right. This was the last time a swearing-in ceremony was held on the Capitol’s east side.
It was an uncomfortable ride.
That’s how former President Jimmy Carter described the photos of him and his predecessor, Gerald Ford, sharing a limousine on the day of his inauguration. Carter had defeated Ford in the 1976 election, and the two men weren’t exactly friends.
But it was important to both that they carried on with a longstanding tradition.
“It was incredibly painful for Ford when he lost the election, but you did not let that stand in the way of conceding or doing a good transition because that was the right thing to do,” said David Hume Kennerly, who was Ford’s chief White House photographer and had a remote camera set up in the limo.
Ford and Carter ride to Capitol Hill for Carter’s inauguration in 1977. Sharing the presidential limo were House Speaker Tip O’Neill, front left, and US Sen. Howard Cannon.
President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush greet the Clintons as they arrive at the White House before Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. “I can’t say they were glad to see (the Clintons) walk up the steps, but at least they played the role,” photographer David Hume Kennerly said. “And the role is important for America, and (President Bush) knew that. Despite how depressing it was to lose that election — and I know it was for him — they still did the show.”
This tradition, of the incoming president riding to Capitol Hill with the outgoing president, goes all the way back to the 19th century — although then it was a horse-drawn carriage instead of a bulletproof limo.
“Whether they liked each other or not, they would ride together for the show of unity,” said Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who’s now a presidential scholar at the University of Arizona. “Harry Truman didn't like Eisenhower, but he rode up to the Hill with him. Nixon rode with LBJ. Ford rode with Carter. Reagan beat Carter and rode with him. … Everybody did that. Even Trump rode with Obama.”
But this will not be the case this year, as President Donald Trump has said he will not attend the inauguration of Joe Biden.
Donald Trump shakes Barack Obama’s hand at Trump’s swearing-in ceremony in 2017. At left is former Vice President Joe Biden, who went on to defeat Trump in the 2020 presidential election. “In that one frame, you now have three presidents,” Kennerly said.
President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, wave to the crowd as they ride down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade in 1981. The parade has been a staple of inaugurations throughout the years, but there won’t be one this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump’s post-election actions have frustrated Kennerly, who has covered 13 presidential campaigns and photographed many an inauguration.
“It's a celebration of American democracy, it’s a celebration of how we peacefully transfer power,” he said. “The symbolism and the imagery of it is critical.”
But that has been marred by Trump’s persistent — and baseless — claims that the election was stolen from him.
“Every tradition is broken, including the peaceful transfer of power after what happened on January 6,” Kennerly said, referring to the pro-Trump rioters who breached the US Capitol last week. “You’re not going to have that show of unity because Trump has not conceded the election. It's just beyond any kind of understanding for me. I don't get it.”
President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, third and fourth from left, welcome Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to the White House on Carter’s inauguration day. Next to Betty Ford are Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and his wife, Margaretta, who were standing next to Vice President-elect Walter Mondale and his wife, Joan. "I call that one big unhappy family," Kennerly joked.
Vice President George H.W. Bush addresses the guests at President Reagan’s inaugural ball in 1981. Bush, of course, would go on to succeed Reagan as president.
Children sit on a light pole during Reagan’s inaugural parade in 1981.
The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was one of the most contentious in American history, with the Supreme Court having to ultimately settle a recount dispute before Gore would concede.
But when he did, Gore went on to attend Bush’s swearing-in ceremony along with Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton.
It’s this kind of respect, Kennerly says, that makes Inauguration Day matter.
“It’s not just to pay off the people who supported you,” he said. “It’s to show the people of the United States that we can do this the right way and that’s why we’re different than so many other places.”
President George W. Bush takes the oath of office, which was administered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 2001. “I’ve known (Bush) a long time,” Kennerly said. “I know his dad very well from the Ford days, and I always liked George W. Bush. He’s a very smart guy. Very personable guy. He was a decent human being who had a great sense of humor and he liked other people.”
Vice President Al Gore, third from right, talks to Bill and Hillary Clinton as he attends a White House reception before the swearing-in ceremony of George W. Bush, left, in 2001. Gore and Bush had just faced each other in one of the closest presidential elections in US history, but Gore still showed up for the inauguration.
The President’s absence isn’t the only reason that this inauguration will be unlike any we have ever seen.
The celebrations have been significantly pared down because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Biden’s inaugural committee — trying to keep crowds to a minimum — has urged Americans not to travel to Washington, DC. The National Mall will also be closed to the general public because of security concerns, according to an official familiar with discussions.
Usually, thousands of people gather on the Mall to watch the new president being sworn in.
This year, there will be thousands of National Guard troops stationed in the nation’s capital.
Thousands gather to hear Trump’s inaugural address, which he delivered from the West Front of the US Capitol in 2017. Kennerly does not hide his dismay for the way Trump has been handling the transition to Biden. “It’s really about the most un-American, unpatriotic, unbelievable thing I've ever witnessed in my 55 years of watching all this stuff,” he said.
Reagan and his wife, Nancy, attend the inauguration on the West Front of the US Capitol in 1981. It was the first one held on the West Front of the US Capitol. “People said that Reagan wanted a bigger venue, but he actually had nothing to do with it. They’d already made that decision,” Kennerly said. “They wanted it because you could get more people to see it. There was more room on that side. It was more accessible to more people.”
Biden is still expected to take the oath of office from the West Front of the US Capitol, where the public swearing-in ceremony usually takes place.
Ronald Reagan was the first to be sworn in there, starting in 1981. Before that, the ceremony was held at the East Portico.
Kennerly vividly remembers the final East Portico ceremony, when Carter took the oath on 1977. “I became a private citizen the minute he was sworn in,” joked the former White House photographer.
That was Kennerly’s first “proper” inauguration, he said. A few years before that, he was taking photos when Nixon resigned and Ford took over.
Jimmy Carter waves from the East Portico during his inauguration in 1977. Ford is seen at back left, and Vice President Walter Mondale is on the right.
A crowd attends Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
The Nixon transition was a moment Kennerly said he will never forget.
“For drama, that’s definitely top five in my life — that moment, the only time an American president resigned,” he said.
Kennerly was on a press riser with other photographers and had only a few seconds to immortalize the historic spectacle. It was a quick sequence of photos as Nixon waved farewell before boarding his helicopter.
“You can see his lips are pursed, and in that little moment it had to be incredibly painful for him on every level,” Kennerly said. “He's giving up the presidency. No one's ever done it that way, and he was a disgraced leader and he was leaving under duress.
“But once again, it was a peaceful transition. A few minutes later, Ford was sworn in as president of the United States. No guns were fired, no coup was attempted, and as President Ford put it in his remarks, ‘Our long national nightmare is over.’ “
Richard Nixon waves farewell after resigning from office in 1974. Kennerly vividly remembers "the feeling and the tension” of the historic moment, and he said it was one of most dramatic moments he’s ever photographed.
Ford, Nixon’s vice president, is sworn in as president after Nixon resigned. “You know what (this moment) said to me? It said the system works,” Kennerly said. “Here's a guy being sworn in as president under extraordinary circumstances, and it was a smooth turnover. … I was watching really with some pride that our system works, and I'm documenting it.”
Kennerly has photographed plenty of the pomp and circumstance that comes with Inauguration Day — the gathering of past presidents, the swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
But some of his most interesting photos were taken away from the television cameras.
He was in the Oval Office on Clinton’s first Inauguration Day, watching as White House workers swapped out George H.W. Bush’s desk and replaced it with the Resolute desk. He photographed first lady Betty Ford standing on a Cabinet Room table on her last day in the White House. And he was backstage as the Obamas attended their 10 inaugural balls.
“These are photos that can give you more insight behind the scenes,” he said. “And it really boils down to the access of the presidential photographers. Everything's so locked down. This time, (the security) will be insane. There won't be very much behind the scenes, outside the personal photographer to Biden. That is my guess.”
White House Head Usher Reex Scouten, left, supervises a desk swap in the Oval Office as Bill Clinton was set to take office. Clinton was going to use the Resolute desk, seen at right. The desk had previously been used by President John F. Kennedy. “When Clinton came in, I wasn’t on the Hill for that (inauguration), but I was there watching the desk being brought in,” Kennerly said. The swap came right at noon, as Clinton was taking the oath of office.
First lady Betty Ford has a "last dance" on a Cabinet Room table in 1977. It was the Fords’ last full day in the White House, and she was saying goodbye to staffers when she got an idea. “She kind of had a twinkle in her eye and said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table,’ ” Kennerly recalled. “There were two Secret Service agents and me and one other person, and they thought she was kidding. … To her — and I talked with her later about it — there were so few women that ever sat around that table at that point as Cabinet officers. And that was really her way of planting that flag right in the middle of the male domain.”
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, share a private moment in an elevator as they head to one of their 10 inaugural balls in 2009. “Out of all (of Obama’s) eight years, that picture really stood up as going directly to their relationship and who they were,” Kennerly said. “It feels like a high school prom photo, like she's wearing his jacket. And even with other people around, they are experiencing a very personal moment. I didn’t photograph Obama very much, but I’ll take that picture. If I have to have one best of everything I've shot of Obama, that would be it.”
So we likely won’t be seeing many of the great photos we’ve seen from past inaugurations. There will be an emptiness about the day, as the celebration is mostly intended to be a virtual event viewed on television.
But to Kennerly, that doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if it is the smallest crowd ever in the history of an American inauguration.
“What’s really important is that this thing's happening after the extraordinary circumstances we've witnessed,” he said. “The main event needs to happen. People have got to see it happen.”
Maybe we see some interesting photos. Maybe we don’t. But our democracy must go on, and the peaceful transition must take place, as it has throughout history.
“The most important picture is Joe Biden with his right hand in the air,” Kennerly said. “That's the one that counts.”
Then-Vice President Joe Biden walks up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after attending an inaugural concert celebrating Obama’s election in 2009. Kennerly said he’s not that surprised that Biden is the president-elect 12 years later, even though the odds seemed stacked against him at the beginning of 2020: “The smart money wouldn’t necessarily have been on Joe Biden this time around, but ironically he's exactly the right person for the job now.”
Ford jokes with some of the White House maids in his final hours as President. “President Ford treated everybody the same,” Kennerly said. “Everybody loved him. … He was not only down to Earth, but he had a great heart. He knew all of the household staff by name, and because I spent so much time up there with him, I saw it firsthand.”
George W. Bush leaves the White House as President for the last time in 2009. He was about to take the traditional limo ride to the US Capitol with his successor, President-elect Obama, at right.
Workers prepare the parade stands before Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
Newly sworn-in President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush walk along the parade route during the inauguration celebration in 2001.
First lady Betty Ford, right, poses with Rosalynn Carter in the Blue Room prior to departing the White House in 1977.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, watch the inaugural parade with the Obamas in 2009. Kennerly said he doesn’t know Biden well but he photographed him many times in his years as a US senator. “The thing about Joe Biden is his heart is just out there,” Kennerly said.
While Obama was being sworn in as the 44th president, his family’s possessions were being unloaded from moving trucks and put in place in the White House living quarters.
Ford looks out at the Capitol during his helicopter ride after Carter’s swearing-in. He wanted the last thing he saw to be the Capitol because he had served in the House of Representatives for so many years. “It was a sad moment really. I remember it that way. He didn’t say much,” Kennerly said.
David Hume Kennerly is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and a presidential scholar at the University of Arizona. He was President Gerald Ford's chief White House photographer. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Photo editors: Brett Roegiers and Bernadette Tuazon