First Ladies On The Steps & In the Car Together: A Century-Old Tradition

Michelle Obama welcomes Melania Trump on the North Portico of the White House, Inauguration Day January 20, 2017.

Yesterday’s inauguration offered one new precedent – a lavishly iced Inaugural Cake in shades of red, white and blue, sliced by the new president at one of the balls.

The Tiffany box gift presented by Melania Trump to Michelle Obama, however, followed a custom set by Mrs. Obama in 2009, when she gave a gift to Laura Bush, who was leaving the White House.

The tradition of the incoming President and First Lady both being invited into the White House by their outgoing predecessors for the warmth of some coffee and conversation was begun by Woodrow and Edith Wilson, when they welcomed Warren and Florence Harding on inauguration day March 4, 1921. Due to Wilson’s stroke, he was unable to come out onto the North Portico to welcome the Hardings. When the incoming Herbert and Lou Hoover came to the White House in 1929, the outgoing Coolidges greeted them inside the mansion, and then all four emerged to enter the cars.

When Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt came to the White House for his 1933 inaugural, the outgoing Hoovers came out of the mansion to greet them, since F.D.R. was disabled and it was arranged for him to stay in the car.

Although outgoing President Harry Truman invited incoming Dwight D. Eisenhower in for coffee on his Inauguration Day, the latter was steamed at Truman for having ordered his son John Eisenhower out of military service to be there to witness the historic moment (Ike felt it showed preference for his son), and would not come inside. The Trumans came out on the North Portico to greet Mamie Eisenhower and her husband. Ever since the 1961 Eisenhower-Kennedy transition, the new occupants have come inside for coffee with their predecessors.

It was when the Wilsons and Hardings exited the house, that the longest inaugural tradition involving First Ladies began, the outgoing Woodrow and Edith Wilson riding in open cars to the U.S. Capitol Building with their respective successors, Warren and Florence Harding. The last open car drive to the Capitol from the White House was in 1953, when the outgoing Trumans rode with the incoming Eisenhowers.

In 1961, the presidential car was open to the public only when the newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy made the return drive from the Capitol to the White House, with his wife, the new First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy seated beside him.

Following the 1963 Kennedy assassination, there were no more open cars transporting Presidents and First Ladies on Inauguration Day between the White House and Capitol Building in either direction.

If the math doesn’t seem to match the photos here, however, it’s because there were many more inaugurals in the twenty-five years since 1921 when there was no such drive of the two First Ladies.

Harding died in 1923 and was thus not at the 1925 inaugural of Coolidge. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded himself three times, and so there was none but he and Eleanor Roosevelt heading to his 1937 and 1941 inaugurals, and his 1945 one was held at the White House. He died three months later and so there were no predecessors to drive with for the Trumans at his 1949 inaugural. Kennedy was assassinated and again, there was no predecessor to drive with in 1965 at Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural. Nixon succeeded himself and so Pat Nixon had no predecessor or successor to drive with at his 1973. He resigned a year later, and Betty Ford watched her husband take his oath of office at the White House.

Except for Reagan’s second inaugural in 1985, Clinton’s second one in 1997, Bush’s second one in 2005 and Obama’s second one in 2013, each outgoing First Lady has taken the ride with each incoming First Lady, all of them following in the car behind their husbands.

Thus, there have been a total of only thirteen of these transitional coffee welcomes and drives to the Capitol shared by First Ladies in the last century.

(Many of the images, originally taken from a distance are not sharp)

Outgoing First Lady Edith Wilson, left, was horrified when incoming First Lady Florence Harding leaned over the side of the car to yell a friendly greeting to reporters. “They’re my boys!” the former newspaper manager told Mrs. Wilson, as they drove to Harding 1921 inaugural ceremony.

Outgoing First Lady Grace Coolidge, left, with incoming First Lady Lou Hoover. They had become friends and got into such a chat session in the car and once at the Capitol Building that they took a wrong turn down a hallway and delayed Hoover’s 1929 swearing-in ceremony.

Lou Hoover, left, was smiling, but bitter about the fact that the husband of her old Washington acquaintance, Eleanor Roosevelt, right, had beat her husband in his re-election bid. Here they ride to Franklin Roosevelt’s first of four inaugurals, in 1933. When Eleanor asked Lou what she’d miss the most, Mrs. Hoover sighed that it was having all the servants to depend on. Mrs. Roosevelt later recalled that she made a mental note never to be so dependent. Later that day she worked with moving men to place the family furniture in the private quarters.

Unlike their husbands Harry and Ike, outgoing First Lady Bess Truman and incoming First Lady Mamie Eisenhower had a “grand time” in their open-car drive from the White House to the Capitol for the 1953 Inauguration of Eisenhower. “The crowds on the street could hear gay gales of laughter from the gals in the car,” as one Washington observer put it. The two women had been friends, and even took Spanish lessons together.

Outgoing First Lady Mamie Eisenhower leads incoming First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy down the steps of the White House North Portico into the car that would take them to JFK’s 1961 inaugural ceremony. When Mamie saw her husband put on his top hat, a ceremonial gesture requested by Kennedy, she piped up to Jackie, “Look at Ike in that hat! He looks like Paddy the Irishman!” Mrs. Kennedy barely managed a polite smile. The faux pas was hardly flattering to the wife of the first Irish Catholic U.S. President.

Lady Bird Johnson, in pink (right), and Pat Nixon in red (center) pose with their husbands on the North Portico steps before stepping into the limousine that carried them to Nixon’s 1969 swearing-in. Mrs. Johnson recorded that she and her old Senate wife colleague just talked about the weather. In red coat at far left is Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird’s indispensable aide, while Pat Nixon’s press secretary stands to the left of her. At far left, on the top step Traphes Bryant the dog keeper, poses with the Johnson beagles.

Incoming First Lady Rosalynn Carter, left, with outgoing First Lady Betty Ford, before a White House coffee and their ride to Carter’s 1977 inaugural ceremony. Mrs. Ford recalled having to “be philosophical” in her attitude towards her successor as she made the drive to the U.S. Capitol with Mrs. Carter, whose husband had defeated her own in the election. They later became such close friends that Mrs. Carter honored Mrs. Ford’s request that she deliver her funeral eulogy in 2011.


Outgoing First Lady Rosalynn Carter in white, and incoming First Lady Nancy Reagan in red exit the White House for their drive to Reagan’s 1981 swearing-in. It was a frosty ride, Mrs. Carter still wounded over the bitter loss of the election to Nancy’s husband. The two politically formidable wives were that day, in the words of Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, “like the red queen and the white queen of Alice in Wonderland.”

The new First Lady Barbara Bush escorting former First Lady on her way out of Washington, down the Capitol steps, after the 1989 Bush inaugural ceremony.

Outgoing First Lady Barbara Bush welcomes Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea while incoming President Bill Clinton pets the First Dog Millie on the North Portico, January 20, 1993. Mrs. Bush kept a good humor about her husband being defeated for re-election by Clinton but on the inaugural stand, she later wrote, couldn’t help thinking her husband would still have been the better choice.

Outgoing First Lady Hillary Clinton, by then already a U.S. Senator for three weeks, with her husband, poses with her successor Laura Bush and incoming President George W. Bush, having been in the opposite position with Mrs. Bush’s mother-in-law eight years earlier. Their ride to the Capitol Building for Bush’s 2001 inauguration was warm and conversational, Mrs. Bush already comfortable with the customs of the day, having experienced it with her father-in-law’s inauguration as vice president in 1981 and 1985 and as president in 1989.

Outgoing First Lady Laura Bush greets incoming First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009 on the North Portico. The new First Lady brought a gift of a diary and pen set, engraved with the date, encouraging Laura Bush to write her memoirs.

Outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama is presented with a gift by incoming First Lady Melania Trump on January 20, 2017, following the custom set by Mrs. Obama in 2009. The two women had a friendly engagement. The content of the gift, in a Tiffany blue box, is unknown as yet.

Categories: First Ladies, Presidential Inaugurations

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