Uncouth, hot-tempered, and shadowed by scandal: The new president was an outsider who made high society shudder and government officials gnash their teeth. His win after a toxic campaign was described by one leading statesman as a “calamity.” Even allies thought his cabinet picks were mediocre. But his supporters lionized him as the common man’s hero and poured into Washington to see him sworn in. Then they followed him, cheering, down Pennsylvania Avenue as he made his way from the Capitol to the White House.
That president was Andrew Jackson, and the impromptu procession on March 4, 1829, became the template for Inauguration Day parades. Before that, events marking the transfer of presidential power had been small and low-key. At his 1789 inauguration in New York, George Washington gave the inaugural address in Federal Hall and then walked to St. Paul’s Chapel for a service. There were fireworks that evening, but no parade. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked to the Capitol from his boarding house on New Jersey Avenue NW, took the oath of office, ate lunch, and walked back.
Jackson’s parade was historic, but what happened after it became notorious. A mob of his salt-of-the-earth supporters descended on the White House, horrifying Washington socialites in their silks and furs. They shoved waiters and climbed on upholstered furniture in work boots. Eventually, a clever steward lured them outside with tubs of whiskey punch, but not before they broke china and dirtied the carpets.
President-elect Donald Trump has been compared to Jackson many times. Of all the people who could have moved into the White House on Jan. 20, it is Trump—stager of fervid rallies, star of reality TV, builder of resorts and casinos—who seems most likely to arrive with a circus in tow.
In fact, Trump’s inauguration will be on the skimpy side compared to others, given that organizers have struggled to attract performers. The chief of Trump’s inaugural committee promised that what it lacks in A-listers it will make up for with “a soft sensuality”—a weirdly NC-17 phrase reminiscent of the discarded Trump-Pence campaign logo that had a capital T, er, entering a P. Maybe it means the design of the parade and inaugural balls will reflect Trump’s rococo taste, or maybe the surrogate was just clumsily trying to manage expectations.
Like Andrew Jackson, Trump has inspired thousands of ordinary citizens to come to Washington to watch him ascend to the presidency. The difference is that many of them are coming to protest him from the sidelines, while his formal parade will feature the Mid America Cowgirls Rodeo Drill Team, the Boy Scouts, the U.S. Border Patrol Pipes and Drums, and school marching bands from distant parts of the country (D.C. bands declined the invitation). About 8,000 people will be involved in the one-hour event, a big drop from the 15,000 who took part in Barack Obama’s first parade in 2009.
Parades were more extravagant a century ago. At Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1905, 50,000 flags decorated Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Apache chief Geronimo and the Rough Riders drew huge crowds. Roosevelt watched his parade from a neoclassical reviewing stand in a “Court of Honor” that stretched between 15th and 17th Streets NW, in imitation of the World’s Fair of 1893 (Chicago’s famous “White City”). At that time, Pennsylvania Avenue merchants set up general viewing stands in front of their stores and sold tickets to the public.
Dwight Eisenhower’s parade in 1953 was a blowout. “A lot of folks believe that 1953 was the biggest,” says Jim Bendat, the author of Democracy’s Big Day, a history of inaugurations. It had 73 bands, 59 floats, three elephants, an Alaskan dog team, and a turtle waving an American flag with its front legs. It lasted four-and-a-half hours.
James Garfield put on a grand spectacle despite winning by the thinnest of margins: less than 10,000 votes out of 9 million. Perhaps more than any other president, he grasped the architectural possibilities of the occasion, building 39 large wooden arches at intersections between the Capitol and the White House. The main arch was 70 feet high and painted bronze, straddling 15th Street north of Pennsylvania. Garfield, inaugurated in 1881, was also the first president to build a formal reviewing stand, not a makeshift platform of wood and canvas.
From Garfield’s day until the late 20th century, considerable thought went into the design of the president’s stand. For a time, the American Institute of Architects even helped the inaugural committee choose the designer in a competition.
The master of the reviewing stand was Waddy Wood, the architect of many D.C. landmarks, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and what is now the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Wood designed a stand for Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and two for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933 and 1937. The first of FDR’s was designed to resemble Federal Hall, where George Washington was inaugurated. The second was an elaborate replica of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home.
Presidential stands took a Modernist turn with Harry Truman’s inauguration, and the design for John F. Kennedy’s in 1961 by local architect Robert Paul Brockett—a simple pavilion with a slightly upturned roof and rows of supporting piers—remains the default today. Of course, the pavilion is now fitted with a carapace of bulletproof glass and other security measures. Safety and comfort, not visual symbolism, have become the overriding concerns.
Trump’s stand looks a lot like those used by Obama and George W. Bush. But he has broken with tradition another way—by firing Charlie Brotman, the announcer for every parade since 1957. That makes inauguration historian Bendat indignant. “I think it’s the most petty thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. (Brotman has been hired as an announcer for NBC.) Another unexpected move by Team Trump was dismissing the commander of the D.C. National Guard, effective the minute Trump takes office, 12 p.m. on Inauguration Day. The motivation is unclear, but there will be an abrupt change of command as the city churns with Trump supporters, protesters, and tens of thousands of law enforcement and troops.
There were protests at George W. Bush’s inaugurations and at Richard Nixon’s in 1969, when opponents of the Vietnam War camped on the Mall and threw rocks and tomatoes at the presidential motorcade. But the Women’s March and other demonstrations planned for this inauguration weekend could dwarf those. Two hundred bus groups have applied to park at RFK Stadium on Jan. 20 and 1,200 on the day after, when the Women’s March on Washington is being held. Protesters may end up outnumbering supporters, which would be a first.
“The protest that takes place on the Saturday will be probably the largest protest for an inauguration weekend we’ve ever seen,” Bendat says.
On Inauguration Day itself, thousands of protesters as well as supporters are expected to line the parade route. (D.C. anticipates 800,000 people in total.) Riding past his ethically compromised hotel in the Old Post Office, with gold letters spelling out his name on the facade, will the new president get out of the limo and pose for photos? The ANSWER Coalition, an activist group, has received a permit to demonstrate in the west end of Freedom Plaza, probably within earshot of the hotel.
Despite riding in armored limos for their protection, most first couples choose to walk part of the mile-and-a-half-long route. (The one couple that walked the whole way was, unsurprisingly, the Carters.)
Will the Trumps walk any part of the route? The president-elect thrives on adulation but loathes criticism, and is rumored to wear a bulletproof vest out of fear for his safety.
The best thing he could do to restore confidence at such a fraught time is put duty over nerves and ego. Trump could get out of the car near the National Archives where the nation’s founding documents are kept to signal deference to their principles. He could walk hand in hand with Melania down the avenue, accepting the jeers of protesters as well as the applause. He could show that he is humbled by the massive responsibility that now rests on his shoulders.