America's big day '“ and a step into the unknown with Donald Trump

What can we expect on inauguration day in a fearful Washington? At least no one should die from the cold like one former president, says Rob Hastings.

New era: Donald Trump will follow traditions of presidential inaugurations that date all the way back to 1789 as he takes up office today. (Picture: PA).

“The time has come to set aside childish things.” Watching Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration eight years on, those words now stand out from his public address perhaps more than any others. Faced with Donald Trump’s bombardment of misspelled and misdirected tweets, crass public insults, tempestuous pronouncements and apparent view that difficult problems can be solved with easy answers, we might well conclude that childish things are back for Inauguration Day 2017.

The closest thing America has to a coronation normally offers its new leader their best chance of looking “presidential” in the purest way. They can concentrate on looking dignified and confident without any need to defend their record, as the realities of office soon require from even the best of them. They can quote scripture, as Obama was doing with that line in 2009. They can set out their agenda in soaring rhetoric without worrying about details, governing in poetry rather than prose for just a brief moment.

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So for his first few minutes in office at least, will the new “leader of the free world”, the most divisive US commander-in-chief in history, avoid granting caricaturists another opportunity to draw him as a toddler? Standing before the Capitol building in Washington DC to give his address, even Mr Trump will follow the traditions of inaugurations dating back to 1789 and deliver a message to help heal the American nation – if his advisers are to be believed.

History man: Barack Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts at the ceremony in Washington DC four years ago. Picture: PA

Tom Barrack, a billionaire real estate tycoon appointed by Mr Trump in November to lead a 20-strong committee responsible for organising the proceedings, has promised Mr Trump’s speech will focus on “the issues that unite us”. Mr Barrack even predicted that divisions from the vicious and dirty campaign will “vanish” in the address.

Mr Trump managed to display a conciliatory tone in his election victory speech in November. He even complimented Hillary Clinton after his brutal campaign attacks on her, declaring the American people “owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country”.

Yet not everyone is convinced he will show the humility presidents typically strive for on days like these. “The biggest issue is whether Mr Trump attempts to make this inauguration day all about himself, because that’s not really what inauguration day is,” says a sceptical Jim Bendat, author of America’s Big Day, which charts inauguration history. “It’s a day to celebrate and to honour the traditions of the country, not just one individual.”


History man: Barack Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts at the ceremony in Washington DC four years ago. Picture: PA

The centrepiece of inauguration day will be Mr Trump swearing the oath administered by John Roberts, chief justice of the US Supreme Court, before delivering his address to a crowd that authorities expect will number around 800,000 people.

Trump has unsurprisingly promised an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout” from his supporters. But the predicted total would be only half the attendance of Mr Obama’s 2009 ceremony, the largest in history, and many congressional Democrats are boycotting the event.

For Washington DC, however, 800,000 might still be too many. Residents of the American capital – a city where 90 per cent voted for Ms Clinton and only 12,723 people turned out for Mr Trump – are wary of those arriving to celebrate.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find any other city or community that voted so overwhelmingly against the incoming President,” said Matt Dalleck, a political historian who lives in the city and serves as an associate professor at George Washington University.

“Trump instils a unique level of fear in a lot of people. There’s apprehension about who’s coming to town – is the ‘alt-right’ going to be taking over, or white supremacists?” Mr Barrack has promised the ceremony, traditionally involving including music and poetry, will display “poetic cadence” and even “soft sensuality”. But it’s unlikely to feel like that in the streets around the event, given that 28,000 security officials will be on duty, including officers from the police, the secret service and the National Guard.

The Washington Post has said its hometown will be transformed into “a virtual fortress of roadblocks, fences and armed police”. Many protests are also planned nearby and on Saturday there is a women’s march on Washington.

For the rest of the nation, however, things will largely continue as normal. “It’s a communal and cultural moment,” said Mr Dalleck, “but it’s on a work day, so a lot of people are going about their lives.” For all the build-up, the ceremony tends to be “forgettable” – and the country does not come to a standstill in the way it does for the Super Bowl.


One way that Mr Trump’s inauguration could go down in history is beyond his control: the weather. Forecasts predict it could be the warmest inauguration day on record (though possibly a very wet one). While that might not be enough to convince Mr Trump to tackle global warming, it will mean the crowds who turn out to see him enter office won’t have to brave the usual icy blast of a Washington midwinter chill.

Temperatures can get so low that, famously, they once killed a new president. In 1841, William Henry Harrison became the first to die in office after giving an epic two-hour address in freezing conditions without an overcoat, hat or gloves; he is thought to have already been ill before the ceremony began, but the cold left him bedridden with pneumonia and he died a month later, giving him the unwelcome record of being the shortest-serving president.

Looking back over the long history of inauguration ceremonies, 2009 was undoubtedly memorable beside the temperatures faced by crowds who waited hours to see the first black President be sworn into office. Among the crowds was EJ Dionne, a professor in Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University and co-author of We Are the Change We Seek: the Speeches of Barack Obama.

“I went there with my wife and three kids,” he said. “The moment itself, with 1.6 million people spread across the Mall, was so powerful.” However, despite the symbolism and pride many people in the country felt that day, Mr Dionne believes Obama missed the mark with his speech – trying too hard to “soar” without coming up with a neat, memorable phrase to encapsulate his message and remain etched in people’s memories. “Obama felt, it seemed, a real obligation not to give a speech that threw blame backward on the previous administration,” he said. “I think that proved to be a political error, even if you can argue there was a certain honour as he was trying to stay with the unifying theme.”

Mr Trump, on the other hand, does not need to throw around any more blame. So what can we expect of his inaugural address? “I’m curious whether Trump will find it in himself to give anything like a unifying speech,” said Mr Dalleck. “There is a desperate need for Trump to send a signal to the very large number of Americans who are unhappy over his election. There is a poll that came out recently that showed his poll rating is down to 40 per cent – that’s unprecedented for a President-elect. And yet he shows intent on speaking to the people who support him, not many others.”


The celebrations continue once Mr Trump steps away from the microphone. President Obama had 10 official balls to attend, whereas Mr Trump is reportedly holding three, but there are many other unofficial parties being held for supporters and it will still be a busy night for him.

“The President and the First Lady will generally attempt to appear at each one, often very short appearances – they might dance a few steps for a minute or less and then they move on to the next inaugural ball,” said Mr Bendat. After the dancing, political observers had expected that Mr Trump would immediately get to work on implementing some of his policies. “He’ll start taking actions that are both substantive and symbolic,” said Mr Dalleck. “I’m sure he’ll issue executive orders to overturn some of the things Obama did. He’ll make a show of trying to roll back Obamacare, even if it’s just a symbolic step.”

However, despite saying at various times in recent months that on day one of his administration he would label China a currency manipulator, order the building of a wall with Mexico and suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees, don’t expect President Trump to do anything immediately. “My ‘day one’ is gonna be Monday because I don’t want to be signing [laws] and get it mixed up with lots of celebration,” he said this week.

We should also bear in mind that one of President Obama’s first actions in the White House was ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay within a year, but the prison remains open to this day. So do inaugurations and the addresses matter?

Will we know anything more about a Trump presidency from his speech? “In Trump’s case, it will be about as irrelevant as an inaugural address could possibly be,” said Mr Bendat. “He says one thing one day and another thing the next. The inaugural address will have to be brushed aside while we wait to see what he does next.”

Only four presidents have given great inaugural addresses, according to a consensus among historians and political experts. These are some of their key lines:

Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. – Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. –Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865

This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D Roosevelt, March 4 1933

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it… My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. – John F Kennedy, January 20 1961