Thursday, March 4, 2010

Inauguration Day

For more than half of its existence, the United States observed Inauguration Day on March 4.

Of course, any day could be the day a president is inaugurated, due to death or resignation. But I'm talking about those regularly scheduled, once–every–four–years events when a president–elect is sworn in.

With the exception of those occasions when March 4 fell on a Sunday, presidents–elect took the oath of office on March 4 from the day George Washington took the oath for the second time until Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath for the first time.

In Washington's time — and, through the 19th century into the 20th century — it made sense to swear in a new president in March. After doing whatever needed to be done to get his personal and business dealings squared away, a president–elect might have to travel a long distance to get to the nation's capital in the days when air travel didn't exist and rail travel was still developing.

But, by FDR's day, travel was not as formidable, and I guess it didn't make much sense to delay the implementation of the will of the people until the third month of the next calendar year.

The date for presidential inaugurations was changed by the 20th Amendment, which was ratified by the required number of states on Jan. 23, 1933. Because of the provision of Section 5 ("Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article"), it did not apply to the president who was elected in 1932. Instead, it affected the start of the next presidential term.

For a long time, I thought that the 20th Amendment was proposed and ratified because of the presidency of Herbert Hoover, during which the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. But the older I got — and the more I researched that possibility — the more unlikely it seemed. The 20th Amendment was proposed in 1932, when Congress was equally divided between Hoover's Republicans and the opposition Democrats. Both parties have changed a lot in the 77 years since the amendment was ratified, but my guess is that lawmakers felt the same sense of loyalty to presidents of their own party that they do today.

It is certainly possible that the Democrats of that time were motivated by the Hoover experience to move up the inauguration date, but Republicans may have had different reasons. That doesn't mean they wouldn't have been glad to be free of what many must have perceived — if privately — was political dead weight, but, while Democrats may have mentioned Hoover (and the likelihood that he would be replaced by the voters) frequently when discussing the proposed amendment, my guess is that the Republicans did not pile on.

The current inauguration date — January 20 — is more than six weeks earlier than March 4, but that hasn't always been enough for some people who were eager to get past the transition. Less than three weeks after Barack Obama's election in November 2008, Gail Collins proposed, in the New York Times, that George W. Bush step down and let the Democrats take over early.

Collins had it all worked out. Of course, there were certain obstacles to get around. It would have required Dick Cheney to agree to resign as well, and it would have required Nancy Pelosi, as the third in line, to agree to give up the House speakership to become president for a couple of months (although it might have been, under those circumstances, more appropriate to consider her a "shadow president," since, in Collins' scenario, Pelosi seems to have been more of a conduit for imposing Obama's will earlier than the natural course of the law would allow, not really a president in the traditional sense of the word). And there might have been some other constitutional issues that would have been raised by such an unprecedented act.

Collins may have been writing with her tongue firmly against her cheek, but she asserted that stepping down would be a patriotic act for Bush. I'm not sure if Bush or any other high–profile Republicans felt the same way. And, obviously, it never came to pass, but, even if it had, I don't think the starting date of the next presidential term would have been altered.

Clearly there are some people who are still living who were alive on that March day in 1933 when FDR took the oath for the first time. There are even some people who are old enough to remember that day. But even those who don't remember it have heard the most famous line delivered in FDR's inaugural address that day:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

That was an important thing to say to Americans in the 1930s, when one–fourth of the population was out of work. Americans in the 21st century think these times are hard — and they are — but this is practically a walk on the beach compared to what Americans faced in 1933.

Even so, wouldn't it be nice — even reassuring — to have a president who told us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself — today of all days?

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