Originally created 01/03/97

Poor weather hasn't stopped presidents' oath-taking



WASHINGTON - The snow blew into drifts and even toppled utility poles; 6,000 shovelers struggled to clear the streets between the Capitol and White House. Yet as noon approached on Inauguration Day, it was still snowing and the temperature was at the freezing mark.

"I always knew it would be a cold day when I got to be president," William Howard Taft quipped to a reporter on that frigid day in 1909.

Mother Nature doesn't always frown on presidential inaugurations, but occasional storms have been miserable, even fatal.

William Henry Harrison declined the offer of a closed carriage and rode on horseback to the Capitol, braving cold temperatures and a northeast wind on March 5, 1841.

After speaking for more than an hour he returned to the White House, again on horseback, catching a chill that eventually turned to pneumonia. He died a month later.

"He was the first American president to die in office, a victim of his militant disdain for the elements," historian Patrick Hughes observes in Weatherwise magazine.

Ronald Reagan, who broke Mr. Harrison's record as the oldest man to become president, was more cautious in 1985 when the coldest weather in inaugural history struck Washington. Mr. Reagan moved the ceremonies indoors and canceled the parade.

When Franklin Pierce was sworn in on March 4, 1853, the weather was raw and windy with light snow falling. Abigail Fillmore, wife of outgoing president Millard Fillmore, caught cold while sitting on the windswept inaugural platform. She died of pneumonia within weeks, Mr. Hughes says.

Originally, presidential inaugurations were held on March 4, a date selected in an era of slow travel so that all the participants could be present for the ceremony.

By the 1930s transportation was much better and politicians wanted to shorten the long "lame duck" period between the November election and the inauguration. So a decision was made to change the date to January.

Weather records showed that Jan. 20 tended to have mild conditions so it was chosen. But the first ceremony on that date, in 1937, took place in a deluge, with 1.77 inches of rain pouring on the capital city.

Aides tried to talk Franklin D. Roosevelt into moving the ceremony indoors but he looked out at the soggy crowd and replied: "If they can take it, I can take it."

Weather historian David M. Ludlum reports in his book The Weather Factor that Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, author of the amendment changing the date, declined to accept blame for that fiasco.

Before complaining, he said, wait until March 4 and see what the weather is like on the old date. It was sunny and 67 degrees.

Mr. Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, replied to the formal invitation to his 1949 swearing-in this way: "Weather permitting, I hope to be present." He took the oath of office beneath sunny skies in 38-degree weather.

Indeed, despite the bitter cold for Mr. Reagan, a blizzard for John F. Kennedy and the rain that dampened Mr. Roosevelt, Jan. 20 has a good track record.

Meanwhile, miserable weather has occurred on March 4 the past three inaugural years, according to statistics compiled by Tom Ross of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., and reported in Weatherwise.

Here's a look at some extraordinary Inauguration Day weather:

  • Mr. Fillmore in 1850 had the hottest inaugural on record at 92 degrees. He was sworn in on July 10, following the death of Zachary Taylor, who had collapsed from heat exhaustion at the dedication of the Washington Monument.
  • Ulysses S. Grant took his second oath of office in 1873 in the coldest inaugural weather until Mr. Reagan's. The temperature was 4 degrees at daybreak and only 16 by noon.
  • The price for a bleacher seat at James A. Garfield's inauguration fell from $5 to 50 cents and still there were few takers as a stiff northwest wind and temperatures near freezing followed an overnight snowstorm in 1881.
  • Benjamin Harrison took the oath in 1889 in a driving rain despite the fatal example of his grandfather. By the time he finished speaking most of the spectators and even his wife and daughter had gone indoors.
  • Tiny icicles glistened on Grover Cleveland's mustache as he rode to the Capitol in 1893 while slush underfoot and fast-falling snow made conditions miserable.