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Inaugural gaffes can’t mar majesty

The inauguration of an American president is one of the oldest institutions in a continuous democracy.

Planners make extensive efforts to make sure nothing goes wrong. A week ago, in the predawn darkness, the military bands marched up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and around the Capitol grounds. Stand-ins for the president and first lady did dry runs of the oath-taking.

Nothing is left to chance. But, if there is one certainty about an inauguration, it’s that something is sure to go wrong.

Something already has. Thousands of would-be inaugural ball-goers who thought they had reserved tickets were abruptly informed by Ticketmaster that a glitch allowed their tickets to be sold to someone else.

This year, the balls are more selective. The Obamas are giving two: one reserved for members of the armed services, the other the actual A-list ball. At their first inauguration, they gave 10.

“Ball” is rather a misleading term, because they are generally oversubscribed, jammed and demanding of unusual persistence and pushiness to get a plastic piece of stemware holding a splash of overpriced wine.

Veterans still fondly recall the Great Mink Riots of 1981, when Reaganites flooded the town and its cloakrooms. At evening’s end at one ball, beleaguered attendants finally began flinging fur coats at random into the crowd that threatened to overwhelm them.

There is no mingling with the first couple. When he was newly sworn in, President George W. Bush made a brief appearance at each ball and was back in the White House by his bedtime.

Barack Obama’s first inaugural, in 2009, required that he be sworn in twice because Chief Justice John Roberts muffed the first reading of the oath of office.

At the luncheon at the Capitol that year, two of the great, elderly, Democratic lions of the Senate – Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts– fell ill.

Even if the planning is meticulous, the weather is not. Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, in 1985, had to be moved indoors and the parade postponed because of 7-degree temperatures. Eight inches of snow fell on the eve of the ceremony.

Andrew Johnson braced himself with whiskey before his speech until he was practically incoherent. At Andrew Jackson’s inaugural, the White House staff had to drag tubs of spiked punch onto the lawn to get their revelers to leave.

All inaugurations have their social mishaps, but the event’s greatness is unmarred: It is a peaceful and decorous transfer of power in a country where it is unthinkable, unlike in other parts of the world, for a leader to extend his grip on power through extra-legal means.

That oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” truly means something – even though, in 57 tries at it, we seem unable to get the ceremony itself exactly right.