Presidential Inaugurations, from Truman to Trump

Last Friday, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference shortly after to announce that Trump’s inauguration held the largest audience “both in person and around the globe,” kicking off a colorful discussion on crowd size and digital viewership.

In terms of television viewership, Trump’s inauguration didn’t even come close to the most-viewed. The event was seen by 30.6 million viewers across 12 networks.

According to Nielsen, Trump’s swearing-in ranks as fifth when compared to inaugurations of previous presidents. More people tuned in for Richard Nixon’s in 1969, Jimmy Carter’s in 1977, Barack Obama’s in 2009, and Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981 marks the most-viewed inauguration of all time, with 41.8 million viewers. Nielsen holds TV data from inaugurations back to 1969.


While Reagan may have the prize for the most-watched inauguration on TV, the honor of the first televised inaugural address belongs to our 33rd president,  Harry Truman. Truman’s first inauguration in 1945 was rather subdued – he swore the oath in the White House following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt earlier that day.

He made up for it in his second inauguration in 1949, which The New York Times described as “the most splendiferous since Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to lift the pall of gloom of 1933 with brave words proclaiming the New Deal.”

Truman’s swearing-in was said to be viewed by 10 million people. More people watched the inauguration than any other single event in history.

There were estimated to only be about 2 million TV sets in the US at the time, so many people tuned in to watch the ceremony in movie theaters, public libraries, and in schools. However, the technology at the time wasn’t advanced enough to reach the west coast – he wasn’t able to broadcast coast-to-coast until his 1952 speech in San Francisco.

Truman was the first president to leverage the nascent medium, but he certainly wasn’t the last. John F. Kennedy understood the way in which live TV could help (and harm) American politics – in 1961 he held the first live press conference. Then in 1965, JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson moved the time of the State of Union address to primetime in order to reach the widest possible audience to sell the American people on his Great Society and civil rights plans.

Trump, our first president who found celebrity through reality TV, will likely leverage television in ways that we may never have seen before. We’ll have to wait and see what that may be.

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