Inauguration: A time of quirks, drunkenness & bloopers

Mistakes. Fires. And frozen dead canaries.

Historically, Inauguration is unpredictable, a time when anything can and has happened. Author Jim Bendat delights in these moments in his newly updated book, Democracy’s Big Day — The Inauguration of our President 1789-2009. Bendat, who was the in-house historian at the Madison Hotel during President Bush’s 2005 Inauguration, will cover President-elect Obama’s Inauguration as a correspondent for Sky News.

“A lot of unusual things take place,” said Bendat, recalling that in 1961, when Cardinal Cushing gave the invocation, the lectern caught on fire due to a short in the system.

And then Lyndon Johnson made a mistake in his oath. Traditionally, the vice president promises to uphold the Constitution and support government “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”
“LBJ said, ‘without any mental reservation whatever,’ ” Bendat recalls.

Another blooper occurred when famed poet Robert Frost tried to read a poem. Bendat notes that Frost was the first poet ever to participate in an Inaugural ceremony. “It had snowed the night before, and Inauguration morning was a bright, sunny day with a huge glare bouncing off fresh snow,” he said. “Frost couldn’t read what he had written. People held top hats to hold the glare.”

In the end, Frost delivered a different poem called “The Gift Outright,” which he had memorized. He told the crowd that the poem was dedicated to the “new president,” whom he called “John Findlay.” That president was John F. Kennedy.

Wrong names aside, how about an inebriated vice president? This happened in 1865 during Abraham Lincoln’s second Inauguration with Andrew Johnson as his vice president. Johnson had fallen ill and, at the time, vice presidents also gave Inaugural addresses. Johnson was given whiskey for his illness. He soon became drunk.

“Medicine wasn’t then what it is now,” Bendat said. “Someone suggested that he drink whiskey, and he drank quite a bit. He was drunk for his Inaugural address. He was rambling incoherently and people held their heads in shame and embarrassment.”

The dead canaries came in 1873, during Ulysses S. Grant’s Inaugural ball. “Somebody had forgotten to heat the place,” said Bendat. “People were trying to dance in their long overcoats; people were tripping all over one another. They had brought in canaries. It was so cold, the canaries froze to death.”

Bendat has long been fascinated by politics, history and collecting the two. At 12, his grandfather took him to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles as Kennedy was running for president. The day before the convention opened, his grandfather took him to Democratic headquarters.

“We walked into this room, a huge line of people waiting to shake Kennedy’s hand. He takes me right up to the front of the line and [yells out], ‘Mr. President.’ Kennedy immediately turned away from everything else and shook our hands. It was a thrill to meet Kennedy. I didn’t realize how big of a deal it would be.”