Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, looks at how the Presidential Inauguration moved from the East Front of the Capitol to the West Front. Ritchie, who has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades, reveals that it was not Reagan’s decision.
When Barack Obama took the oath as President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, more than one commentator attributed that location to Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 became the first president inaugurated there. Previously, presidents from Andrew Jackson to Jimmy Carter had been sworn into office on the Capitol’s East Front. Reading historical and symbolic significance into that switch, a historian writing in the Washington Post [January 18, 2008] asserted that “Reagan’s inaugural team took the extraordinary step of moving the entire swearing-in ceremony from the traditional east front of the Capitol to the west side–partly to reinforce Reagan’s own Western roots but also because the vistas on the western side are more photogenic and evocative of greatness.” Parade Magazine[January 18] called Reagan’s moving the ceremonies “an important symbol for a man who sought to change direction and for a nation that always looked West for opportunity.” An article that appeared widely in the McClatchy newspaper chain [January 20] asserted that Reagan moved it “as a giant stage prop for his inauguration.”
That all of these observations are wrong says a lot about the way historians and journalists extrapolate from their own assumptions about the past. The truth is that the Joint Committee on the Inauguration announced its decision to move the inauguration from the east to the west side of the Capitol in June 1980, more than a month before Republicans nominated Reagan, and for more pragmatic reasons than commentators suspect. The congressional committee calculated that the move would save money, since they could use the West Front terraces as an inaugural platform rather than build one from scratch, and that the Mall side of the Capitol would provide more space for spectators. Construction of the inaugural platform began in September 1980, when Reagan and Jimmy Carter were running even in the polls and the election’s outcome remained uncertain. Had Carter had won reelection, or if John Anderson had pulled off an upset, either would have been inaugurated on West Front, too.
As an actor, Reagan knew the importance of a stage and he incorporated the new location into his first inaugural address. He described how he was looking westward over the monuments to past presidents, and across the Potomac toward the graves in Arlington of those who had fought and died for their country. Once Reagan put his stamp on it, commentators began reading significance back into his “decision.”
However much modern presidents like to present themselves as deciders, Congress makes some decisions for them. Ronald Reagan was the beneficiary, not the author of the change in inaugural venues. When it comes to inaugurations, the U.S. Constitution specifies only the words of the presidential oath of office and when it should take place–at noon on January 20. The rest is tradition. Congress has hosted most inaugurations since George Washington’s in 1789, moving it over time from New York to Philadelphia to Washington, and to various locations inside and outside the Capitol. Rather than use Reagan’s inauguration as a demonstration of unitary presidential action, commentators would be more accurate to cite it as an instance of mutual cooperation between the legislative and executive branches.
Ironically, Ronald Reagan had more to do with the placement of his second inauguration. Troubled over predictions of sub-freezing temperatures, Reagan’s staff contacted the chairs of the Joint Committee the night before the inauguration in 1985 and requested that the ceremony be held indoors. “It’s his inauguration,” House Speaker Tip O’Neill concurred, and so Reagan became the only president to take the oath of office in the Capitol Rotunda.