Hail to the Chief: An Inaugural Overview

By Sarah Wides and Michael Waitzman

As we prepare for the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, our first president of African-American descent, on January 20, it is worth noting that the Constitution only specifies the oath of office that must be administered to and taken by the president-elect. The pageantry and celebration surrounding the inaugurations of our presidents evolved quickly following the founding of the United States of America, although these are not specifically called for constitutionally. Of course, until various technologies were invented that democratized the experience of the administration of the oath, the president’s address and the accompanying fanfare and celebratory revelry, only a very select and privileged few were fortunate enough to experience these events directly.

A look at watershed inaugurations in terms of media coverage and distribution:

1809: The inaugural address by James Madison, the fourth president, was published in newspapers following his swearing-in;

1845: Telegraph inventor Samuel Morse actually sat near James Polk, the eleventh president, and telegraphed news of the inauguration as it transpired;

1857: Fifteenth President James Buchanan’s inauguration was the first to be photographed;

1897: The inauguration of William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president, was recorded by both silent motion pictures and by phonograph;

1921: Twenty-ninth President Warren G. Harding was the first to have his inaugural address electronically amplified;

1925: The inauguration of Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president, was the first to be broadcast live on the radio;

1929: Thirty-first President Herbert Hoover’s inaugural speech was the first to be filmed for a “talking newsreel”;

1949: Thirty-third President Harry Truman was the first to have his inauguration broadcast live on television. As the Truman Library points out on its website, “The 1949 Inauguration...was estimated to have been viewed by 10 million Americans. More persons watched President Truman’s Inauguration than ever before had seen a single event. It also was more than the total of all persons witnessing all previous Presidential Inaugurations.”

1997: The second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, the forty-second president, was the first to be available for live viewing on the Internet.

While Harry Truman’s inauguration was the first to be televised in 1949, no kinescopes of that broadcast seem to exist, (although newsreel film coverage does). Let’s take a look at some clips of significant early television coverage from three inaugurations: Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, John F. Kennedy in 1961, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. [next]

An Inaugural Overview | Important Inaugural Moments | Inaugurations We Would Have Liked to See


Photos (top to bottom): James Madison, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton