A Look Back at Some of the Worst, Wildest Inaugurations in Presidential History

Donald Trump's ceremony may be hurt by protesters and a weak lineup of performers, but it won't be as nuts as Andrew Jackson's inauguration.

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17 January 2017, 7:08am

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In March of 1829, Andrew Jackson rode into office as a man of the people—the first American president not born into wealth—and, as a token of his good faith, he opened the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to those people after his inauguration. This was a bad mistake, as anyone who has ever thrown a "bring whoever, it's a rager" party can attest. By the end of the evening, his supporters were said to be so rowdy that they had to literally be lured outside to the White House lawn with bowls of whiskey punch and ice cream. Jackson himself escaped his fans through a window or side entrance, leaving behind—though reports of the extent vary—drunken brawls, muddied furniture, and broken china.

"A monstrous crowd of people is in the city," the senator Daniel Webster wrote of the event. "I never saw anything like it before. Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson; and they really seem to think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger."

Donald Trump's supporters—who will be coming to Washington, DC in droves for his inauguration on Friday—also feel that sense that the country is being rescued. Luckily, this time around, the White House won't be hosting a bender. But the event is still expected to be one of the most contentious inaugural ceremonies in modern history.

On Twitter, the celebrity-turned-president has promised that his impending inauguration on Friday will be, like everything else in his life, "a GREAT SHOW." But Trump is so unpopular in the entertainment world that the only acts his people could book were 3 Doors Down, Toby Keith, and 16-year-old singer Jackie Evancho. (The inauguration has become so toxic that a Springsteen cover band felt compelled to pull out of a warmup event on Thursday.) Not to mention the congressional Democrats who are boycotting the inauguration, and the poor inaugural staffers who spent time taping over the "Don's Johns" logo on the porta-potties.

So no, hopes are not high for the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. But Jim Bendat, an inaugural historian, says that it can't compare to some of the clusterfucks and controversies of past presidential transitions.

After losing re-election, John Adams didn't even show up to Thomas Jefferson's inauguration, Bendat told me, because he thought "it would've been similar to King George III attending George Washington's inauguration." His son, John Quincy Adams, skipped on the whiskey punch after losing to Andrew Jackson in the hotly contested election of 1828. "He just couldn't relate to Jackson, and his rowdy bands of followers," Bendat continued. "The Adams were either sore losers, or thought it was wrong."

Flash-forward a hundred years, to FDR's victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932. In the motorcade, Hoover apparently ignored his successor's attempts at conversations, and didn't even look at him the entire time. "If you do a search, you'll find the photos," Bendat pointed out. "Hoover looks straight ahead in every picture."

Then there's the story of outgoing First Lady Rosalynn Carter's treatment of incoming First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1980. According to Bendat, Reagan later wrote that "Rosalynn just looked at the window, and didn't say a word. I didn't know what to say, so I kept quiet, too. Fortunately, it's a short ride." (Michelle Obama seems to have an easier relationship with Melania Trump, even after the whole plagiarized speech thing.)

Now, onto the demonstrations. In terms of sheer numbers, this weekend is on track to attract the largest protest presence that an inauguration has ever seen, which isn't surprising given Trump's historically low approval ratings. But of course, this isn't the first time that an incoming commander-in-chief is divisive and hated by a wide swath of the country.

"There have been a handful of times when the person who didn't get the most votes became president," Bendat explained. "There were plenty of protesters for George W. Bush in 2001, particularly on the parade route. The area called Freedom Plaza, near 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, was just filled with protesters. As they drove by, in that particular area, there were more protesters than supporters."

Bush's second inauguration, in 2005, was met with resistance as well, with a handful of members from the anti-war group Code Pink trying to interrupt the ceremony. Richard Nixon, too, was opposed by antiwar forces both in 1969 and 1973. But it's the 2001 inauguration that feels most like today.

Bendat read me Bush's own words about that day, from his memoir Decision Points: "They carried big signs with foul language, hurled eggs at the motorcade, and screamed at the top of their lungs. I spent most of the ride in the presidential limo, behind thick glass windows. So their shouting came across in pantomime. While I couldn't make out the words, their middle fingers spoke loudly: The bitterness of the 2000 election was not going away anytime soon."

But a protest that feels even more relevant can be found further back, in 1913—then, as now, a huge number of women marched in a major show of solidarity, though their issues were different. On the eve of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, 5,000 to 8,000 suffragettes arrived in DC to demand the right to vote. "That is a lot of people, given the year we're talking about and the difficulties in transportation," he added. "That's a large number of women who showed up for women's rights."

It's easy, Bendat continued, to draw the lines between the Suffragist March then, and the Women's March today (the latter event may wind up being the largest protest ever, with hundreds of thousands preparing to demonstrate). "Women were denied a fundamental right back in those days," Bendat explained. "Now women feel like a lot of what Trump represents is a major threat to all of the accomplishments that have taken place since 1913."

When I asked Bendat if there was anything about Trump's inauguration that made it feel different from the rest, he brought up Trump's firing in early January of Charlie Brotman, the 89-year-old announcer who has voiced every inauguration since 1957.

"Every one of them—party hasn't mattered," Bendat said to me. "He's just a really friendly, gregarious person with a bubbling personality, and was just terrific at his job. And he could've been terrific this year. It's really sad, and pathetic, that Trump would fire him." According to news reports, Trump replaced Brotman with an announcer who had volunteered for Trump.

But in most respects, Friday's pomp and circumstance will likely resemble past inaugurations, with more outré ideas like a helicopter ride from New York to DC ultimately being rejected. Though Trump has spent decades puffing himself up into a larger-than-life figure, the office he's entering will prove to be bigger than even Trump's self-image.

"It's not about one individual," Bendat said. "Inauguration Day is about our country, it's about democracy, and it's about those traditions. It's not about one person."

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