- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

“I knew it would be a cold day when I was made president,” William Howard Taft said jokingly upon taking office in 1909 - described as the year with the worst inaugural weather.

Ten inches of snow fell. Wind downed trees and telephone poles. Streets were clogged and trains stalled.

And that was when presidents were inaugurated in March.

Now the ceremony is held in January, and President-elect Barack Obama is hoping his weather luck holds.

He chose an outdoor location for his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and got a balmy night with no rain. On election night the weather favored his Chicago victory celebration, with the temperature around 60 degrees, unusual for a November night in Chicago.

So, what to expect on this Inauguration Day? Well, normal wouldn’t be so bad.

The normal high temperature for the day is in the low to mid-40s and the typical noon reading is about 37 degrees, under a partly cloudy sky with a 10 mph wind.

On a typical Jan. 20 there is about a 1 in 20 chance of snow during the ceremony. But there is about a 3 out of 10 chance that snow will already be on the ground, the National Weather Service reports.

While the event is still five days away, the weather service forecast for Jan. 20 is morning clouds giving way to afternoon sun with highs in the upper 30s and a 10 percent chance of precipitation. And that’s much better than the single-digit temperatures predicted for Thursday and Friday.

“Historians are always trying to read symbolism into inaugurations,” says Donald Ritchie, associate historian at the Senate Historical Office.

“If the sun breaks through and there is a burst of light just as the person steps forward, this is a good omen. This is something that goes back to Roman days.”

For example, “It was warm and sunny on Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration; people saw that as a good omen.”

However, Ulysses S. Grant’s “second inauguration was so cold that all you hear about is the discomfort of the people who went to the inauguration and then went to the inaugural ball.”

“They had canaries in cages all over the pension building, and the canaries froze; so that was taken as a symbol that this was not going to be a good time,” Mr. Ritchie said.

With the District closing the downtown to traffic for an expected crowd of 1 million to 2 million people to see the country’s first black president, this inauguration also could result in the worst inaugural traffic jam.

The unofficial record was set in 1961 when 8 inches of snow fell on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, which left hundreds of cars marooned and thousands more abandoned. The president-elect had to cancel dinner plans and, in a struggle to keep other commitments, is reported to have had only four hours of sleep. An army of men worked all night to clear Pennsylvania Avenue, using flame-throwers.

Bad as it was for Taft, his wasn’t the coldest inauguration.

The temperature at noon for Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 was 7 degrees and the wind chill was about minus 15 degrees.

The hottest weather for an inauguration technically was on Aug. 9, 1974, when Gerald R. Ford took office after Richard M. Nixon resigned. It was 89 degrees.

The warmest January inauguration was Mr. Reagan’s first - 55 degrees in 1981.

William Henry Harrison’s swearing-in turned out the most tragic.

It was a cloudy, blustery day in 1841. Harrison spoke for more than an hour and rode a horse to and from the Capitol without a hat or overcoat.

He caught a chill, which turned into pneumonia, and died just one month later.

The official date for inaugurating a president was changed from March 4 to Jan. 20 in 1937. It was moved up so a president could take office sooner, but weather was a factor in choosing the new date. A study of records showed Jan. 20 was less likely to be stormy than March 4.

Not that year.

Jan. 20, 1937, still holds the rainfall record for any Jan. 20 in the District, with 1.77 inches. After sleet and freezing rain in the morning, nearly three-quarters of an inch of rain poured from 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

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