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Chatting with … Jim Bendat

One of the nation’s leading inauguration historians talks about democracy’s big day — and how it will be very different in 2021.

Jim 2
From left, historian Tim Naftali, CNN's Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo, and Northwestern alumnus and inauguration historian Jim Bendat on Inauguration Day in 2017.

By Sean Hargadon
January 18, 2021
Online Exclusives
2 Responses

Historian Jim Bendat ’71 has attended four of the last five presidential inaugurations and been part of media coverage of the event since 2000. The former Los Angeles County public defender is the author of Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2013.

While Bendat won’t be at the Capitol on Wednesday — he hasn’t traveled since the pandemic began last March — he is looking forward to seeing how this unusual inauguration takes shape.

We asked Bendat to share some of his favorite inauguration anecdotes and to reflect on how this year’s event will be unlike any other in our history.

How will Jan. 20, 2021, be different from more typical inaugurations?

The only aspects of this year's inauguration that are going to be familiar to us are the administration of the oath and the inaugural address. Everything else is out the window.

Normally you have the outgoing and the incoming presidents meeting at the White House during the morning. Then they ride together for the procession to the Capitol. After the ceremony, there is a luncheon, a big parade and then the inaugural balls at night.

None of those things are happening. Even the National Mall is going to be closed on Inauguration Day. It's going to be a very, very quiet affair. 

The pandemic is a big part of it, but Donald Trump is the main reason why it's going to be so different. He made the decision not to invite Joe Biden to the White House, he made the decision not to have the procession to the Capitol, and he made the decision to not even appear at the ceremony.

On Jan. 6 we had a physical assault on democracy, and I really consider Trump's decisions to not participate in the inauguration to be a symbolic assault on democracy. Very sad.

As a nation, we’ve held inaugurations during times of turmoil and war in the past. Is the tone and tenor in the lead-up to this inauguration similar to other times of crisis?

The only past inaugurations that were comparable were Abraham Lincoln's, in 1861 and 1865. His first took place just as we were about to enter the Civil War, and his second inauguration was held when that war was about to end. Washington, D.C., was an armed camp then, just as it will be this year.

Lincoln did his best to keep the nation together in 1861, and he sought to heal the nation's wounds in 1865. Similarly, Joe Biden's task will be to try to unite a deeply divided country. 

What’s your favorite inauguration anecdote? 

I love to find the oddball events, the little quirks, mistakes that were made. If I had to pick one that had lots of colorful events, I'd have to pick 1961 — the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

First of all, you had a phenomenal inaugural address by Kennedy — one of the greatest of all time, with so many memorable phrases, the most famous one being, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

In addition to that, when Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in, he botched the inaugural oath. At the beginning of the ceremony, Cardinal Richard Cushing delivered an invocation, and as he was speaking, the podium started to catch fire. There's a picture in my book where you can see smoke coming from the lectern area. There are great looks of concern on the faces of both Eisenhower [the outgoing president] and Kennedy [the president-elect] as a marshal quickly put out the fire.

Robert Frost, who was the first poet invited to recite a poem at an inauguration, had written a special poem for the occasion called “Dedication.” But Frost, who was 86 years old, couldn’t recite those words. It had snowed the night before, but Inauguration Day was a bright, sunny day, and the sun reflecting off of the fresh snow created a glare that prevented Frost from being able to read the words that he had written.

Instead, he recited a different poem that he knew by heart. To top it off, he dedicated his poem to “the new president, Mr. John Finley,” the name of Frost’s friend who was a scholar from Harvard. 

For those who remember the 1988 vice presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle, I like to say, “Finley knew Frost. Finley may have been a friend of Frost. But Finley was no Jack Kennedy.”

How did you get interested in the subject of inaugurations?

I've been collecting sports programs since I was 7 years old. Within my collection, I had a couple presidential inauguration programs that people had given me. When I discovered eBay in 1999, I typed in inauguration, and all these old programs came up.

So I started acquiring them and really started reading them thoroughly. So many of them, particularly older ones, were filled with history, with colorful stories from past inaugurations — many of them serious, but many of them pretty amusing too. And I realized nobody knows this stuff.

I had always wanted to write a book but hadn’t come up with a good topic. I’d found my idea.

Do you plan to update “Democracy’s Big Day” after this year’s inauguration?

The problem with any history book where the event continues is that it never ends. The book had to stop somewhere, and I don't mind the fact that it stops with Barack Obama. The title of the book is Democracy’s Big Day, and when you think about it, what did Donald Trump really have to do with democracy?

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Reader Responses

  • I think the 2021 inauguration was spectacular even with the constraints posed by the pandemic and the insurrection. The television coverage had to focus more on the people on the stand at the front of the Capitol rather than the usual crowd shots. Having the Pledge of Allegiance being signed by the same person leading the recitation was a very nice touch. The surprise was the powerful poem from the U.S. youth poet laureate.

    The evening's entertainment, having to be virtual, was much better than the endless balls and could be enjoyed by all. The high point of the evening's entertainment was the video of the former presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama offering the new president their advice, should he ever need it. In doing so, it showed that even if the immediate past president does not respect the peaceful transition of power or the office of the president, that respect still exists in the living past presidents of both parties.

    Darryl Baker Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Jim, beautifully said. I was thinking about you today and wondering how you’d approach this inauguration. Now I know, and I totally agree with you. Dayenu!

    Roger Friedman ’70 Silver Spring, Md., via Northwestern Magazine

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