[The following column is the ninth of a series in COLUMNIST WITH A VIEW. The sketches are taken from the editor’s book manuscript Our Curious Presidents and Their Families. Many books of presidential trivia are available, however, the pieces I have selected from my own research are somewhat obscure. Most of them come from presidential autobiographies, approved biographies, or the sources indicated.]
Outgoing President John Adams was the first president to skip his successor’s inaugural ceremonies. (Other presidents who chose not to attend them were John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson (because of illness) and Richard Nixon (orderly transition upon Nixon’s resignation).
Thomas Jefferson immediately ordered the installation of an indoor water closet (bathroom) in the White House.
Dolley Madison was the first President’s wife to organize an inaugural ball. A long tradition was broken when Dolley was the first president’s wife to be called “First Lady.” President Zachary Taylor called Mrs. Madison the “First Lady” while delivering her eulogy at her funeral.
James Monroe was the first inaugural address (1st term) outdoors.
Elizabeth Monroe “ended the custom of [the] president’s wife making the first social call on the wives of other officials in Washington.” The result was that the insulted women refused to attend Mrs. Monroe’s White House receptions. (The National First Ladies’ Library)
Abraham Lincoln broke a long-standing tradition by being the first president to wear a beard. He broke another long-standing tradition by including African-Americans in his inaugural parade.
President William Howard Taft was the first president to throw out the first ball on the opening day of professional baseball season.
Outgoing President William Howard Taft accompanied his successor Woodrow Wilson back to the White House following the inaugural ceremony. He had a sandwich with the new president and promptly departed. This return of an outgoing president to the White House was looked upon as a huge faux pas.
No person of African descent had ever been entertained at dinner at the White House in Washington, D. C. until President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to join him for dinner. John Adams entertained a person of African descent (Joseph Bunel), but Adams’ home was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When Herbert Hoover took the oath of office in 1929, the chief justice who administered the oath mangled it, substituting the word “maintain” for “protect.” Helen Terwilliger, an eighth-grade girl, caught the mistake and wrote Taft about it. Taft answered Miss Terwilliger by insisting that he had said the words correctly. The newsreels were eventually played to see who was correct. Terwilliger was, and Hoover eventually conceded that he had said the oath incorrectly.
Although we take acceptance speeches for granted, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to actually go to the National Democratic Convention to give his acceptance speech in person, establishing a tradition which has continued to this day. Before Roosevelt it was not considered proper for the party’s nominee to appear before the nominating convention.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is responsible for having the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Jimmy Carter broke away from the long-standing tradition of wearing a morning coat and top hat for his inauguration in 1977. Carter chose to wear a business suit with four-in-hand tie. President and Mrs. Carter broke the tradition of giving the president-elect and his wife a tour of the family quarters in the White House by failing to do so for the Reagans.
Ronald Reagan insisted that his first inauguration be held on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. For many years previously the inaugural ceremonies had been held on the east portico, but Reagan wanted to be sworn in facing his home state of California. Since Reagan, all presidents have been sworn in on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. Because of inclement weather, President Reagan gave his second inaugural address on January 21st beneath the U.S. Capitol dome. Since Reagan’s second term officially began on a Sunday, January 20th, he took the oath of office privately in the grand hall of the White House. The swearing-in ceremony was television.
President George H. W. Bush established the precedence of “pardoning” the Thanksgiving turkey which is annually presented to the president and his family.
“In 2000 to protect their situation, D.C. citizens changed the logo on their new license plates from “Nation’s Capitol” to “Taxation Without Representation.” Before he left office, Bill Clinton had these licenses put on the presidential limousine, but George W. Bush replaced them with plain District plates.” (Portable Press, Plunges Into the President, 2004, p. 19]
During President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade, it became obvious that the license plate bearing “Taxation Without Representation” had been restored to the presidential limousine.
Barack Obama took the presidential Oath of Office four times! Chief Justice Roberts and the president-elect botched the oath on Obama’s inauguration day in 2009, so they repeated it the next day in the privacy of the White House. President Obama’s first term officially ended on Sunday, January 20, 2013, so Roberts administered the oath in a private ceremony in the White House. Then, Obama repeated the oath second time at the official inaugural ceremonies on January 21, 2013.
There are many, many more “firsts” for presidents, but the above are changes in long-standing policy or activities.