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All that's required by the Constitution for the president-elect to lose the "-elect" is the swearing of a 35-word oath of loyalty. Over the centuries, however, the ceremony has become encrusted with tradition and precedent. "Today's inaugurations are about 50 times as elaborate as they used to be," says Paul F. Boller Jr., emeritus professor of history at Texas Christian University and author of the book "Presidential Inaugurations." "The Founding Fathers wanted very much for it to be a dignified occasion and to avoid any smack of royalty or coronation, but it's gradually become more lavish. People think whatever goes on now goes way back, but there's nothing permanent about it."

Washington himself began the elaborations, offering an inaugural address and supposedly adding "so help me God" to the end of the oath, traditions every subsequent president has followed (with one exception - Theodore Roosevelt omitted the almighty). But Washington was still averse to the grander trappings. Before assuming office, he undertook a two-week triumphal procession from his home in Mount Vernon, Va., to New York City, the nation's capital at the time. Garlanded with laurels and hosannas along the way, he still compared his feelings to those of "a criminal going to the place of execution." Lincoln reportedly had a similar experience but for very different reasons. When he was first inaugurated in 1861, the storm clouds of civil war were gathering; concerns for his safety were such that he arrived in Washington, DC, in disguise in the middle of the night.

There was always a celebratory ball - Washington danced the minuet at his - but they didn't become official until 1809, when the menu at James Madison's banquet included terrapin and meringue, and they reached their zenith in 1997, when Bill Clinton had 14 official balls. The inaugural parade marched in with Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, perhaps as a way of paying tribute to those lost in the Civil War. The convention of the outgoing president accompanying the newcomer to his inauguration started in 1837, but has not always gone smoothly. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt was reportedly stymied by Herbert Hoover's frosty demeanor, attempting to rouse him with such conversational gambits as: "My dear Mr. President, aren't those the nicest steel girders you ever saw?"

Other additions were more impromptu, as when Lyndon Johnson grabbed his wife, Lady Bird, for a dance in 1965. "After that, every president has danced, with varying degrees of success," notes Boller. In another innovation that caught on, Mrs. Johnson was the first incoming First Lady to hold the Bible on which her husband swore his oath. And only since Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration have a president's children had a place on the stage.

There have been other embarrassments that Tuesday's participants will hope to avoid. There seems little likelihood of the mass demonstrations that accompanied both of Nixon's inaugurations, or the nude protests that marked George W. Bush's in 2001. And Obama will certainly not want to repeat the experiences of James Buchanan, who, thanks to "the hotel disease," saw his entire inauguration day in 1857 punctuated by bouts of diarrhea. If all goes according to plan - with the weather, the oath, the parade, and the ball - it will be a great occasion. If not, the appeal of the early days will become clear. As Paul F. Boller Jr., puts it, "a little more Jeffersonian simplicity might be a good thing."

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