By Jane Morse
The inauguration of the president of the United States is a quasi-religious holiday, a celebrity gala and an opportunity for political management all rolled into one, according to professor Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington.
Speaking January 18 at the Washington Foreign Press Center, Cornfield said the oath-taking is the religious part; the parades and the parties are the celebrity part; and the inaugural address is the political management element.
Beginning with George Washington, the first U.S. president, nearly every president has taken the oath of office with his hand on a Bible or Bibles.
“It is always a matter of interest what Bible the president is putting his hand on, whether there are going to be two books or one,” he said. “In some cases, the book has been open to a particular passage of scripture. In some cases, the book is closed.”
For his second term, President Obama plans to place his hand on two Bibles — one that was owned by the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and one owned by President Abraham Lincoln, who helped end slavery in the United States.
Inaugural parades and parties can be attributed to President James Madison’s wife, Dolley, according to Cornfield. It was her idea, he said, to have the concerts, balls and celebratory regalia we see today when Madison became president back in 1809.
The inaugural address, Cornfield said, offers an American president the chance to set the tone for negotiating and implementing government policies in the term ahead.
“An inaugural address has been an opportunity for political strategy from the start,” Cornfield said. “James Madison lobbied George Washington to include a line or two in his very first inaugural address advocating that Congress pass the Bill of Rights.”
According to Cornfield, the inaugural address is also “as close as a regular American speechwriter gets to poetry.” He cited what he called “the most famous line from any presidential inaugural address,” John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The primary audiences for the inaugural address, Cornfield said, are the American people, the campaign coalition and the world at large. “This is a time when it is not inappropriate or prideful for a president to speak in terms of centuries and destinies and history and all of those big concepts that can sound pretentious if they’re uttered at a fundraising event or even at a convention or — and certainly in Congress,” Cornfield said.
Although the U.S. president is powerful, he is not a king or a dictator, Cornfield said. “The power he has, which is immense,” Cornfield said, “is accountable, it is contingent, it is revocable.”
One of the strengths of the U.S. political system, he said, is the peaceful transition of power.
“At our finest moments in American history,” Cornfield said, U.S. presidents have voluntarily shed the power of their office “and walked away from the office and gone home, either because they lost the election or because, as with Washington at the end of his second term, he had had enough, or because, as with Richard Nixon, he saw that he would be removed from office by Congress if he did not leave immediately.”