WASHINGTON - The inauguration of an American president is one of the oldest institutions in a continuous democracy since George Washington took the oath on April 30, 1789.
In the modern era, the planners of the inaugural celebration make extensive and heroic efforts to make sure nothing goes wrong. A week ago Sunday, in the predawn darkness, the military bands marched up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and around the Capitol grounds. Tall and handsome 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 American presidential 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. With fewer political favors to pay off, the Obamas are giving only two: one reserved for members of the armed services, the other the actual A-list ball. In their first year in office, 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 white 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, treated first lady Laura Bush to about two dance steps, and was back in the White House by his regular 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 official inauguration luncheon at the Capitol that year, two of the great, and elderly, Democratic lions of the Senate -- Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia -- fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital. Their ailments turned out to be momentary.
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; Lincoln's second inaugural was inundated by rain.
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.