The craziest presidential inauguration moments in US history

Yahoo News Staff
·5-min read

Joe Biden’s inauguration has been unlike any other before it.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the political violence inspired by his predecessor, things were a little different when the 46th president was sworn in on Thursday morning (AEST).

While the massive event this year had a large virtual component and more than 25,000 armed troops to ensure it went off without a hitch, the day hasn’t always gone smoothly. From drunken speeches to streets full of dead pigeons, there has been some weird moment in past presidential inaugurations.

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1841: President dies days after lengthy oration

William Henry Harrison delivered a two-hour, 8,445-word address on a bitterly cold morning in the pouring rain, refusing to wear an overcoat or a hat.

While his speech was the longest in inauguration history, his presidency would unfortunately be the shortest. He went to bed that night with a cold, which soon developed into a fatal bout of pneumonia. He died 32 days later.

William Henry Harrison is pictured.
William Henry Harrison had a very short-lived presidency. Source: Getty Images

1865: Whiskey-laden speech goes awry

While the vice presidential oath is now performed immediately before the presidential oath, before 1937 VPs had their own swearing-in ceremony inside the Senate chamber.

In 1865, Andrew Johnson reportedly showed up to his ceremony drunk, having had several tumblers of whiskey to battle an illness. He then delivered a bizarre, slurred speech that led some Republicans to call for his resignation.

However Abraham Lincoln, who apparently watched on in horror, later came to his VP’s defence, stating: “I have known Andrew Johnson for many years. He made a slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain’t a drunkard.”

1865: Murderer in the midst

Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration came just months before the end of the Civil War. Tensions were high and worries about the president’s safety lingered.

Despite heightened security, John Wilkes Booth, the man who would fatally shoot President Lincoln just more than a month later, was photographed standing on the same stage during the address, along with several other conspirators in the assassination plot.

Booth would reportedly later proclaim to a friend: “What an excellent chance I had to kill the president, if I had wished, on Inauguration Day!”

Abraham Lincoln (circled in the centre) at his inauguration on the same stage as John Wilkes Booth (circled top right).
Abraham Lincoln (centre) appeared at his inauguration on the same stage as John Wilkes Booth (top right), the man who would fatally shoot him a month later. Source: Library of Congress

1953: A cowboy threw a lasso around president

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a very serious man — a five-star general, Army Chief of Staff and President of Columbia University. However, his ceremony had one of the wackier moments in inauguration history.

A California cowboy rode a horse in front of the president’s stage, stopped and threw a lasso around the native Texan’s shoulders.

That “California cowboy” was Montie Montana, a film star and rodeo rider who performed in 60 Rose Bowl parades and dozens of movies. Montana initially suggested presenting Eisenhower and his VP, Richard Nixon, with 10-gallon hats, but Eisenhower insisted on the lassoing.

Dwight D. Eisenhower lassoed by a California cowboy on a horse.
The incoming president's catchy campaign slogan was 'I Like Ike'. Source: Getty Images

1961: JFK’s podium almost went up in flames

Before John F. Kennedy gave his legendary inaugural address, an overnight snowstorm nearly forced the festivities to be cancelled. While the ceremony did go ahead, during the address a motor inside a lectern caught fire, sending a plume of blue smoke into the air.

It got worse from there. Lyndon B. Johnson flubbed the vice presidential oath, stating “without any mental reservation whatever” instead of “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”.

Poet Robert Frost then took the stage, but he couldn’t read his notes due to the reflection of the bright sun off the recently-fallen snow. Instead, he recited an older poem from memory, which he then mistakenly dedicated to “the president-elect, Mr John Finley”. Oops.

JFK delivered arguably the most famous inauguration speech. Source: Getty
JFK delivered arguably the most famous inauguration speech. Source: Getty

1973: Richard Nixon’s parade of dead pigeons

Richard Nixon coasted to a landslide victory in his 1972 reelection campaign. However, with the spectre of the Vietnam War and the emerging Watergate scandal, he was intent on making his inauguration a huge success.

According to the Washington Post archives, at Nixon’s request “the inaugural committee spent $13,000 to smear Roost No More, a chemical bird repellent, on tree branches along the parade route to deter pigeons”.

Unfortunately for Nixon, the repellent didn’t quite work as intended. Instead, the birds ate the spray and promptly became sick or died, littering the parade route with lame and dead pigeons.

Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office in 2009 with his family and Joe Biden standing next to him.
Obama set a record for attendance at his inauguration. Source: Getty Images

2009: Obama and Chief Justice Roberts messed up the oath of office

Barack Obama drew a record crowd for his first inauguration in 2009, with a whopping 1.8 million people in attendance. However, there was a slight hiccup with the swearing-in ceremony.

Chief Justice John Roberts misplaced a word in the oath, saying: “That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.” The word “faithfully” should appear between “will” and “execute”.

Roberts re-administered the oath the next day, just to be sure.

with Yahoo News US

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