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Barack Obama Becomes 44th US President

From VOA News: Complete Coverage

Earlier program:

Presidential Inaugurals: Where Past and Future Come Together


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. On Tuesday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States. This week on our program, we look at presidential inaugurations, past and present.



Inauguration Day used to be March fourth under the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. In the old days, it took a long time to count the votes from the November elections. Then the winners had to travel to the capital.

But the Twentieth Amendment shortened the transition period between administrations. It moved inaugurations to January twentieth.

Franklin Roosevelt was the last president inaugurated in March. That was in nineteen thirty-three. Four years later, he became the first president inaugurated in January.


This was George W. Bush being sworn-in by Chief Justice William Rehnquist in two thousand one.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: "Please raise your right hand and repeat after me. I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear ... "

GEORGE BUSH: "I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear ... "

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: "That I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States ... "

GEORGE BUSH: "That I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States ... "

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: "And will, to the best of my ability ..."

GEORGE BUSH: "And will, to the best of my ability ... "

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: "Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States ... "

GEORGE BUSH: ""Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States ... "

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: "So help me God."

GEORGE BUSH: "So help me God."

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: "Congratulations."


The words of the oath are in the Constitution -- all except "so help me God." That was added by tradition. Who began the tradition?

George Washington maybe. Or maybe not. There is debate. Remember, this was long before tape recorders and YouTube. The best that historians can say is that the oath has ended with "so help me God" at least since Chester Arthur's inauguration in eighteen eighty-one.


One tradition we know George Washington began was the inaugural speech. The Constitution does not require it. Washington gave the shortest one ever -- just one hundred thirty-five words --during his second inauguration in seventeen ninety-three.

The longest inaugural address on record was given by William Henry Harrison in eighteen forty-one. He spoke for almost two hours on a cold and rainy day, without a hat or overcoat. He caught a cold, which became pneumonia. He died a month later.


The first outdoor ceremony was James Monroe's inauguration in eighteen seventeen.

Inaugurations are held at the United States Capitol -- the legislative building with the big white dome. In eighteen twenty-nine, Andrew Jackson had the first one held on the completed east front of the Capitol. Future presidents followed.

But ever since Ronald Reagan in nineteen eighty-one, presidents have been inaugurated on the west side. It faces the long grassy area known as the National Mall.


Some of the best-remembered words of presidents came from their inaugural addresses. In nineteen thirty-three, during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt sought to give hope with these words:

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing to fear is fear itself."

And in nineteen sixty-one, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, John Kennedy urged people to take an active part in the future:

JOHN KENNEDY: "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."


Abraham Lincoln made what many historians consider the best inaugural speeches of all. The end of his first one reads like poetry as he appeals for unity in a country under threat of civil war.

READER: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.


Barack Obama plans to honor the sixteenth president, one of his political heroes, at his own inauguration. He will place his hand on the same Bible that Lincoln used at his first inauguration in eighteen sixty-one.

The book is kept by the Library of Congress and has never been used at another swearing-in. Lincoln used a different Bible at his second inauguration.


George Washington was the first president to place his hand on a Christian Bible when taking the oath of office. Since then, bibles have been used with rare exception.

John Quincy Adams used a law book. He was very religious and thought the Bible should be used only for religious purposes.

Under the Constitution, religion and government are supposed to be separate. So why did George Washington use a religious symbol? Donald Kennon is vice president of the United States Capitol Historical Society. He says the idea came from England, America's former colonial power.

DONALD KENNON: "It was a tradition in Anglo-American culture to swear oaths on a Bible."


George Washington was a military hero. So was the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who took office in eighteen twenty-nine. By the time of his election, most white adult males could vote. They no longer had to meet requirements for owning a lot of property.

Historian Donald Kennon says Jackson was considered the first "people's president." And that was not all.

DONALD KENNON: "Andrew Jackson's inauguration was the first at which large crowds of American citizens witnessed the swearing-in ceremony, the parade, and went to the White House following the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol. There was such a large crowd that a ship's cable, a heavy rope, was stretched across the portico to separate the crowd from Jackson as he took the oath and delivered his inaugural address.

"The crowd followed him to the White House to take part in the inaugural celebration. There were so many people — and at that time a crowd of twenty thousand people was a very, very large crowd. There are reports that the White House was trashed and that the servants at the White House had to take the punch and refreshments out onto the lawn in order to get the people out of the White House, and prevent them from damaging it even further."


Margaret Smith, a leader in Washington society at that time, wrote a letter describing the scene:


Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe -- those who got in could not get out by the door again, but had to scramble out of windows.

At one time, the president who had retreated and retreated until he was pressed against the wall, could only be secured by a number of gentlemen forming round him and making a kind of barrier of their own bodies.


Barack Obama's inaugural ceremony will include poetry by Elizabeth Alexander and music by singer Aretha Franklin, violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Prayers will be offered by Joseph Lowery, a well-known civil rights leader from Atlanta, and by Rick Warren. He leads a big church in California and has sold millions of copies of books about "The Purpose Driven Life."

Some supporters of the president-elect deplored his inviting Pastor Warren because he opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights.


Joe Biden will be sworn-in as vice president. Then he will join the new president and their families for a luncheon inside the Capitol. This will be followed by the inaugural parade with marching bands and floats along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

In the evening, the new president and first lady Michelle Obama will attend the ten official inaugural balls. These are big celebrations that bring out a lot of powerful and wealthy people. This time, with the economy in a bad recession, some guests may not be as wealthy as they were. But inaugural balls are supposed to be a time to dance and have fun.

People will also attend many other parties and unofficial balls around the Washington area. Kenya -- the birthplace of Barack Obama's father -- will host the Africa and International Friends Inaugural Ball.


Private donations help cover inaugural costs. The events this year could cost more than the record forty-two million dollars spent four years ago. Mister Obama's goal is to raise forty to forty-five million.

His inaugural committee Web site is naming donors who have given two hundred dollars or more. The limit for individual contributions is fifty thousand dollars.


Organizers have been preparing for as many as two million people at the inauguration of the first African-American president. The expectation of record crowds has created extra security and transportation problems.

Some people will probably just stay home and watch the events on television. But some hotels and ski areas away from the city are offering special rates for people who want to avoid the crowds.



Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. VOA will have full coverage of Barack Obama's inauguration on radio, TV and the Internet. Live video will begin at sixteen hours thirty Universal Time Tuesday at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.