At 93 years old, James Doherty has seen his share of presidents enter and exit the Oval Office.
The former Andover town moderator said he can remember as far back as Franklin Roosevelt's victory in 1932; he was 17 then. But he's never been too impressed with the inaugurations themselves.
"I'm sure it was exciting for the individual being inaugurated," Doherty said with a chuckle. "But from where I was sitting, it wasn't too exciting."
Doherty does plan to stay home from work on Tuesday to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office as the country's 44th president, because, "Well, this one should be pretty good."
While inaugurations have typically warranted nothing more than brief notice by the general public, Tuesday will be different. Millions of people are expected to watch not only the swearing in and inaugural address, but the parade and string of star-filled galas that begin this weekend. As many as 2 million people are expected to descend on Washington, D.C., — a record.
And while the significance of an inauguration is typically not appreciated until years later — more an event for the history books than for the moment — people are already labeling Obama's ceremony as one of the most important in American history.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Harry Wessel, a Merrimack College political science professor. "Everyone is expecting lines to go down in the history book."
It is being compared to John F. Kennedy's inauguration because people suspect that like Kennedy, the former Illinois senator is ushering in a new period in history. Others liken it to Roosevelt's swearing in, because both men are coming in during a difficult economic time for the country — Roosevelt with the Great Depression, Obama with a recession and two inherited wars in the Middle East.
And a connection to Abraham Lincoln's ceremony cannot be ignored. Obama, who considers the 16th president a political hero, will use the Bible that Lincoln used when he takes the oath of office, and has labeled his address "A New Birth of Freedom," which is borrowed from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
"This is really the Super Bowl of American politics," said Mary McHugh, a political science professor at Merrimack College. "People who never watched a swearing in will watch this. It's a phenomenon."
Message strikes a chord
People are expecting a Kennedy-esque "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," or something like Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" line.
"I feel for him," McHugh said. "The stakes are up for the poor man."
Obama will break down barriers as the first black president, opening the door to all minorities, but there's more to it than that. He is the right leader at a pivotal moment in history, McHugh said.
With a full-blown recession, foreclosures and unemployment numbers skyrocketing and an unpopular war in Iraq, Obama's energy and message of hope has struck a chord with the nation, and even other parts of the world. He will take the reins from George W. Bush, a president with one of the highest disapproval ratings in history.
"Crises define great presidents," said David Grayer, a North Andover attorney who is going to the inauguration. "There were some challenges when Bill Clinton took office, but I'm sure he would love to be in that seat now like Barack, going in with so much confronting him."
The hype can also be credited to an ever increasing technologically savvy American culture.
Excitement in inaugurations grew as soon as people could watch them on television, McHugh said. The first televised inauguration was Harry Truman's in 1949.
Bill Clinton's second inauguration was the first time people could watch it online. And now Obama's ceremony will be transmitted to cell phones and mobile devices around the world.
"I really believe when television started covering these things, that's when people really started talking," McHugh said. "Before, nobody saw film clips until later and only read about it in the papers. Still important, but this is different."
Even with the advent of technology, if you ask most middle-aged people which inaugurations they remember, usually only Kennedy's comes to mind, and sometimes Clinton's or Ronald Reagan's.
The parallels between Kennedy and Obama are striking.
Both were looked upon as young, charismatic, energetic, athletic, and attractive — attributes typically seen in movie stars. Kennedy was the first Roman-Catholic and youngest elected president, and Obama is the first black president. And like Kennedy, Obama knows how to excite a crowd.
"I have memories of Kennedy. I remember it was snowing, and we didn't have any school that day," said Rosalie Konjoian, an Andover resident who is attending Obama's inauguration. "I remember the newscaster on television saying if you were Catholic, you could eat meat that day even though it was Friday. ... I remember him standing up from the car and tipping his hat to his father."
Konjoian attended Clinton's second inauguration in 1996, but said it wasn't as special.
"There was no fear of the unknown," she said. "This is a turning point."
It's the pageantry people remember — the dresses, the top hats, the mannerisms.
McHugh remembers Kennedy giving his address sans top hat, so he would look younger.
"I remember President Jimmy Carter walking that entire route," Konjoian said. "And it was one of the coldest ones, I think."
Despite the already historic nature of Tuesday's inauguration, Merrimack College's Wessel said Obama is no doubt carefully planning his ceremony, playing on past inaugurations to craft his own equally historic moment.
Even Obama's arrival in the nation's capital aboard a train recalls Lincoln's similar train ride in 1861.
The total inauguration bill could top $150 million.
"A lot of organization is going behind this," Wessel said. "Obama people want to claim the highest turnout in the history of inaugurations. ... The president-elect has done a great deal to make this happen. It speaks to his strengths. It's going to be an event."
Would it have been as historic if the president-elect was Hillary Clinton?
"I think it would have been just as historic with a woman president or vice president," said Sarah James of Methuen, who attended the first Clinton inauguration.
Konjoian said the same: "It's a turning point in the country either way."
McHugh is just excited that Obama has made people interested in inaugurations, events typically only watched by scholars and political buffs over the past 220 years.
"I'm always fascinated by an inauguration," she said. "I know this is sappy, but that a Democrat and Republican can celebrate the actual ceremony without bloodshed, no sword, just one person shaking hands with the other and transferring power. ... What an incredible situation it is."
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Famous inauguration quotes throughout history
"And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
— George Washington, 1789
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
— Abraham Lincoln, 1865
"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933
"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."
— John F. Kennedy, 1961
"Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay the price."
— Ronald Reagan, 1981
"There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."
— Bill Clinton, 1993
"America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens."
— George W. Bush, 2001