AFTER more than two months of denying that he lost the presidential election, launching and losing dozens of inane court challenges, promoting unhinged conspiracy theories, tweeting day and night delusional fantasies about overthrowing the election, absurdly declaring that Joe Biden will be an illegitimate president, and worst of all, inciting a riot at the Capitol building, Donald Trump predictably announced that he will not show up to watch Biden sworn in as president on Jan. 20.
Watching Trump squirm while Biden takes the oath of office definitely would have made for a great television moment, yet Trump’s fragile ego could never have handled it or the optics. Instead, he will join an elite group of disgruntled presidents who refused to attend the inaugurations of their respective successors. It has only happened three times, and the last occasion was more than 150 years ago.
John Adams was the first to snub an opponent. Adams had succeeded George Washington in 1797 and in the election of November 1800 was seeking a second term. It was a bitter contest, one that for the first and only time, pitted Adams against Thomas Jefferson, his vice-president. Adams represented the Federalist party, while Jefferson was leader of the Democratic-Republicans.
Both candidates slandered each other, but Adams was also criticized by other Federalists who vehemently disagreed with his policies, which they regarded as too moderate. This feud among Federalists enabled Jefferson to win the election.
Adams, proud and somewhat vain, was the first sitting president to be defeated. It was a blow to his ego. Then another tragedy: a few weeks after the election, his 21-year-old son Charles died from cirrhosis caused by alcoholism.
It was possible that Adams was not invited to Jefferson’s inauguration, according to his biographer David McCullough. In any event, at 4 a.m. on March 4, 1801, Adams quietly left the newly completed White House and took a stagecoach to Baltimore. Adams never explained his actions, nor was he ever asked about his decision, adds McCullough.
His son, John Quincy Adams, who was president from 1825 to 1829, was next. He inherited his father’s intelligence and penchant to work hard, as well as his indignant and unforgiving nature; he could not bring himself to attend his rival Andrew Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829.
Adams had won the contentious November 1824 election against Jackson and two other challengers — though Jackson had received the most votes and won the most electoral college votes, but not enough for him to claim the presidency. It was left for the House of Representatives, according to the 12th Amendment, to decide the winner.
Jackson was a hero of the War of 1812 and a champion of the "common man." He was angered by this outcome and labelled it a "corrupt bargain." He swore to run again in four years. And in the November 1828 election, he decisively defeated Adams in yet another campaign in which the two candidates hurled personal insults at each other.
Adams departed the White House on the evening of March 3 and heeded the advice of nearly all the members of his cabinet, who urged him not to attend Jackson’s inauguration.
Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, had become president in April 1865 when Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson’s presidency was a disaster. A southern Democrat and states’ rights advocate, he antagonized the Republican majority in Congress and clashed with them over Reconstruction policies in the aftermath of the Civil War. His fight with the House of Representatives led to his impeachment, though the Senate did not convict him — another thing Trump shares with Johnson.
Johnson was denied a chance to run in the November 1868 presidential election. No political party, including the Republicans and Democrats, supported his candidacy. So detested was Johnson that his successor, Republican Ulysses Grant, the former Civil War commander, did not invite Johnson to accompany him in his carriage to the inauguration ceremony as was the custom. It made no difference, since Johnson had no real desire to attend and stayed at the White House while Grant took the oath of office on March 4, 1869.
Biden has been more conciliatory than Grant. Asked a month ago by Jake Tapper of CNN whether he believes it is important if Trump attends his inauguration, Biden replied: "Important in only one sense. Not in a personal sense, important in a sense that we are able to demonstrate at the end of this chaos that he’s created that there is a peaceful transfer of power with the competing parties standing there, shaking hands and moving on."
But Trump, who will forever perpetuate the "myth of the stolen election," is incapable of being magnanimous; nor of putting the needs of the country ahead of his own warped personal agenda. Moreover, in light of the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 and his despicable role in that ugly event, his presence on the dais would be cringe-worthy. Better that he goes golfing.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context. His most recent book is Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.