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Expert Pitch: Presidential Inauguration Traditions

Elizabeth Goldsmith, professor emerita at Florida State University.
Elizabeth Goldsmith, professor emerita at Florida State University.

As America prepares to inaugurate its 45th commander in chief, many are beginning to wonder whether President-Elect Donald Trump, who has spent his professional career exercising the power of his personal brand, is set to put his own distinctive stamp on one of the nation’s most hallowed political traditions.

Inauguration expert Elizabeth Goldsmith, professor emerita at Florida State University, is dubious. She explains that individual presidents, even those as fastidiously brand-conscious as Trump, typically have very little say in the organization of the ceremony.

“The inauguration is put on by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and it’s something they plan months in advance,” Goldsmith said. “If Trump wanted to make changes, he’d have to work with the congressional group, but I doubt that’s something he’d want to devote his time to.”

As Goldsmith explained, preparations for the 58th Presidential Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, have been underway for some time. The chairman of the committee tasked with arranging the ceremony, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, drove the ceremonial first nail into the Inaugural Platform all the way back in September — months before Trump won the presidential election.

“It’s possible that the president could have some input,” Goldsmith said. “But they’ve been working on it for a while now.”

While Trump may have to relinquish control of the guest list and itinerary to the Joint Congressional Committee, one area where his influence could be felt more directly, according to Goldsmith, is in the menu for the Inaugural Luncheon.

Historically, the luncheon menu has been fashioned to reflect the culinary characteristics of the incoming administration’s home states, as well as their own preferences and tastes.

For example, John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Luncheon included two entrees: New England boiled stuffed lobster in recognition of Kennedy’s famous New England roots and prime Texas beef ribs in honor of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Texan heritage.

Goldsmith predicts that this year’s luncheon will be an upscale affair befitting the billionaire Manhattan real estate magnate.

“I associate President-Elect Trump with New York,” Goldsmith said, “so I’m picturing a very sophisticated, high-end New York menu.”

The Inauguration, which signifies the formal commencement of a new four-year presidential term, has been a day of national celebration since George Washington took his first oath of office on April 30, 1789.

Over the years, traditions have evolved, dates and locations have shifted, and crowds have become considerably more expansive — 1 million people watched President Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Address in person. However, according to Goldsmith, the Inauguration Ceremony has always been an event of great cultural and political significance.

“It’s always been a big deal,” Goldsmith said. “Lincoln’s inauguration, for example, was huge. When he took the oath of office in front of the Capitol in 1861, he drew massive crowds. Right from Washington on, there have been big celebrations.”

Despite the divisiveness and deep partisanship that defined this election season, Goldsmith still expects January’s ceremony to follow in the tradition of the big celebrations of the past.

“Some people book hotel rooms in Washington months in advance, they want to be there no matter who wins,” she said. “There will be partisans there, but there will also be a lot of people who are there out of celebration, joy and love of country.”

Elizabeth Goldsmith is an expert on the day-to-day living of first families and inaugural celebrations including the inaugural luncheon and related activities. Contact her at (850) 443-5814 or egoldsmith@fsu.edu.