However you land on an election, the inauguration is a big deal. People sit up and listen. In this modern world of live streaming, everything that happens on that podium goes out to the world, for better or worse.
That means, someone, somewhere, is sweating big bullets today. Someone is in charge. I can only imagine the sleepless nights leading up to the big day, the compromises, the wins and the fails. There will be fails, like it or not.
Hopefully, for this ceremony, they won’t have to endure fails as big as these six blunders.
1841 – William Henry Harrison
Harrison takes many awards he might rather have passed on from his time as president.
Unless we count times when vice-presidents took the helm, Harrison was the president who served the shortest term, 31 days.
After delivering one of the longest speeches of any president in the cold winter rain in DC, Harrison got sick. He caught pneumonia, then died 31 days later.
Historians debate what exactly was the event that killed him, but my money’s on the moment his heart stopped beating. That’ll kill anyone.
1857 – James Buchanan
There’s not a nice way to say this… President-elect Buchanan wasn’t feeling himself the day of his inauguration. They called it National Hotel Disease, something like how we blame Montezuma’s revenge for everything.
In more technical terms, it was dysentery, but you might be okay with the word diarrhea.
Dysentery followed Buchanan into the first weeks of his presidency, but he made it through the inauguration without a hitch.
1865 – Abraham Lincoln
Sometimes one needs a shot of spirits to get through difficult times. In the case of Andrew Johnson, the vice president to Abraham Lincoln, he may have had several shots.
To the horror of Lincoln, Johnson, whom audiences knew for short and sweet speeches, delivered a sloppy, babbling mess.
In his defense, he’d been fighting typhoid fever. At the time, the prescription for such an illness was whiskey.
I sense a touch of typhoid coming on right now.
1873 – Ulysses S. Grant
You know that scene in the movie where something triumphant happens. It’s that one where there’s an explosion, then somewhere in the background birds fly past the shot?
This was before movies, so who knows where Grant took his inspiration, but he thought releasing a few canaries would put the topper on his speech.
DC can get chilly in March, the month we used to inaugurate presidents. In 1873 it was 4 degrees that day. The birds, about 100 of them, froze to death waiting for their release.
1961 – John F. Kennedy
Of the man, most people know this much, someone assassinated him. What they rarely remember is that we almost lost him to a fire on his first inauguration. That wasn’t the only fail.
Eight inches of snow had coated DC the night before. Then Robert Frost failed to remember the poem he’d written for the occasion, so he recited an older one.
The craziest bit was, during Kennedy’s speech, an electrical fire broke out under the podium. Security quickly put it out, so nobody really noticed.
1973 – Richard Nixon
Fearing an onslaught of pigeons, Nixon asked organizers to spray his parade route with chemicals. After all, one can’t look presidential with bird poo on his shoulder.
The spraying went off as planned, but what happened next even Nixon couldn’t hide. They found the streets of his parade route littered with bird carcasses. Was it an omen?