Weather dampens inauguration history

There’s enough inherent drama in next week’s presidential inauguration that you might think it wouldn’t be necessary for the TV news networks to hype it. But you’d be wrong. That’s just what they do.

Most of the cameras, microphones and reporters that exist on this plane – and maybe Mars and Venus, too – will be in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. I can’t wait to see what Mary Hart will be wearing.

In a fun book called “Presidential Inaugurations,” a guy named Paul F. Boller Jr. writes about the long history of that big event. He includes a chapter on how weather sometimes messes things up. But like a stage musical where the lead singer gets laryngitis, the show still always goes on.

On the very first inauguration day in 1789, George Washington got his hair all powdered up, adjusted his teeth and then made haste for the ceremony on horseback. Even though the event was in late April, some accounts say the weather was lousy, so Washington carried an umbrella. He also wore a dress sword at his side. Maybe it was because he preferred to cut his own meat.

No matter the weather, the event has almost always been held outdoors. A few presidents have moved the festivities under cover during nasty weather – and not necessarily just because they were wimpy presidents. After all, if the citizenry is willing to brave the cold and the rain, the president ought to be able to do the same. Except maybe for William Henry Harrison. He should definitely have called a rain delay when he was inaugurated.

It was pouring cats and dogs that March day in 1841. And also yaks and platypuses, animals not even found in this country. It was just that rainy.

If 68-year-old President Harrison had kept his speech down to 20 minutes or so, he might have only emerged with the sniffles. But instead, Harrison’s speech went on for two hours, reportedly much of it filled with splashing noises. Sadly, Harrison soon came down with pneumonia and died only a month into office. I realize that’s not a very funny punch line, but it’s true.

Nearly 50 years later, Harrison’s grandson Benjamin was sworn in on a day almost as rainy, but he pressed on and gave a speech almost as long as his grandfather’s. But because Benjamin wore a heavy coat and long underwear, he didn’t come down with anything except prickly heat and a rash – rarely fatal.

When Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in for his first term, the weather was rainy and cold. So by the time his second inauguration rolled around, people figured the odds of a nice day had to be better. Wrong.

It was just 4 degrees, with a piercing wind. Musicians tried to play a tune during the inaugural parade, but the valves on their instruments froze up. (Why couldn’t that happen to the trumpet that my next door neighbor kid has been learning to play since September?)

When President Grant tried to read his speech, the wind was blowing so hard that almost no one could hear him. He may very well have said: “My fellow Americans, we need to ask ourselves: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” It wouldn’t have mattered, not even to woodchucks.

During the inaugural ball that night, the few guests who bothered dancing did so in furry overcoats and clunky boots, perhaps waltzing to imaginary music played by musicians with stuck valves. Everyone did the best they could but with the heavy clothes and boots, but they wouldn’t have had much of a chance of making the finals on “Dancing With the Stars.”

Even though a big dinner had been prepared for guests, it was all mostly frozen by the time it was served. But the dessert – ice cream, sherbet and baked Alaska – was perfect.

In 1909, a weatherman named Willis Moore forecast a sunny day for the swearing in of William Howard Taft. Moore was considered the Jeff Renner of his time – but without the benefit of a Doppler, he didn’t see a blizzard heading his way. Afterwards, at least Taft kept a sense of humor about it. “I knew it would be a cold day when I became president,” he said.

Many years later, the weather was so wretched for Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 that he had to take his oath privately indoors – hoping they could do a public ceremony the next day. But 24 hours later, the temperature was still 4 degrees below zero, making Grant’s second inauguration seem like a sauna by comparison.

So Reagan wound up instead taking his oath inside a warm and toasty Capitol Rotunda.

Thus allowing Mary Hart to wear a short skirt and heels.