John F. Kennedy's Podium Caught Fire On Inauguration Day. Here's Why

Normally when a president heads into public they've only to worry about the usual threats: bombs, bullets, and the like. It's not very often that Secret Service would have to worry about a president catching on fire, or worry that a random wooden podium is going to ignite. But lo and behold, this is exactly what happened way back on January 20, 1961, the day when John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president of the United States. But before anyone starts whispering about early, failed assassination attempts: No, this wasn't that. Also, the podium in question did not catch fire while JFK was talking, but rather while Cardinal Richard Cushing was kicking the event off with an invocation to the Almighty. 

We can witness the scene ourselves thanks to the magic of video, per the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies on YouTube. Right when Cushing segues into describing America's "political, social, and humanitarian responsibilities," light gray smoke starts wafting from the podium in front of him. We're not talking great, billowing fumes — just some puffy bits like someone is taking drags from a cigarette. This goes on for about 25 seconds until some folks start noticing the smoke and a black-dressed agent steps into the frame to peer at the podium. There's an obvious cut in the footage, which then connects to Cushing finishing his speech. As Catholic News Live says, it was cold that day, and a heater in the podium was malfunctioning.

Cold day meets electrical issues

No doubt readers have already thought of the obvious "hand of God" gag by now — that the Almighty was responding to Cardinal Cushing's prayer with a fiery, smokey portend of days to come. Barring such divine intervention, it just looks like JFK's podium caught fire because of nothing more dastardly or ominous than electrical issues. Politico cites an electrical short as the cause of the fire, and The Wall Street Journal says that security smothered it and put it out. There's no mention of anything even remotely life-threatening, and no mention of the size or intensity of the fire anywhere — in other words, it was no biggie. When the fire was taken care of Cardinal Cushing just went right back to his invocation. Politico even reports JFK smiling at the whole thing in amusement.

Interestingly enough, the National Weather Service provides us with a clue about what happened. We mentioned that it was a cold day when JFK was inaugurated, and we weren't kidding — it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit. There was even a nice, full blanket of eight inches of snow on the ground. The handy folks at John C. Flood explain that cold weather can cause an increased demand for electricity on power grids. Electrical components and power lines are also at higher risk of failure in cold weather. It's not too hard to see how the frigid weather on JFK's inauguration day increased the likelihood of electrical issues.

Fire near the president? No biggie

In a way, it might seem kind of bizarre that no one at JFK's inauguration did anything but shrug when an electrical fire started mere feet away from an upcoming president. Sure, it was outside, and sure, it was easily containable. Folks reacted quickly, calmy, rationally, and didn't make a big, dramatic deal out of it — maybe this is why the incident seems so odd. You can bet that if a fire started up during an inauguration nowadays there'd be endless freak-outs, online hot takes, conspiratorial ramblings, and folks racing to and from the stage as though a venomous snake had slithered up there.

In fact, an ignited podium wasn't the only thing that could've gone better on JFK's inauguration day. Today says that poet Robert Frost — you know, "The Road Not Taken" guy — was present to read a poem he specifically wrote for the event called "Dedication." He was already getting up in age at the time, however, and the glare from the snow meant that he couldn't read his work. So, he recited another poem from memory, "The Gift Outright." And speaking of blaming even more things on the weather, snow blocked all the roads to the inauguration. It took the Army plus 1,700 Boy Scouts to clear everything in time. And yes, ABC News says that some folks even complained that Cardinal Cushing's speech was too long. But look on the bright side: No one caught on fire.