THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan
His speech took two hours to deliver, as compared with Washington's second inaugural, the shortest of all at 135 words, including "fellow citizens" at the start.
What did Washington say in his first inaugural that started off one of the oldest and most hallowed ceremonies of the nation? Not much, really, in a political sense. (He saved his philosophy for his eloquent farewell address in 1796, decrying the "baneful effects of the spirit of party" and establishing the two-term tradition.)
It was not what Washington said in New York or Philadelphia, but what he was. He gave the office luster. That April day in New York he rejected all "personal emoluments" for the task and ended the tremendous oath of presidential office with the words "so help me God," and kissed the Bible.
Zachary Taylor was another simple, honest soldier like General Harrison, and his inaugural address (1849) also left something to be desired. His immediate predecessor, James K. Polk, wrote of the occasion in his intimate personal diary:
"He read it in a very low voice and very badly as to his pronunciation and manner." (The first use of amplifiers was in the Harding inaugural, which made it possible for the first time for the immense crowd on the Capitol Plaza to hear what was being said).
Polk anxiously notes that in the carriage on the way to the inaugural General Taylor expressed views "which greatly surprised me." The Mexican War had been won and gold discovered in California.The words of the new President were, so the shocked outgoing President reported, "to the effect that California and Oregon were too distant to become members of the union, and that it would be better for them to be an independent government. . . . These are alarming opinions. . . ."
How many times have the words of an incoming president shocked those of the outgoing president as they made the poignant ride together down America's most historic mile, from White House to Capitol? (What will Messrs. Reagan and Carter talk about?) It became so embarrassing for FDR to make conversation with gloomy Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1933, that he began brightly pointing out the new iron girders going into construction along the avenue.