In the end, the lack of crowds didn’t much matter. Careful orchestration, strategic camera angles and some deft artistic touches created the necessary sense of spectacle and occasion.
The new president, Joseph R. Biden, spoke to a sea of some 200,000 small flags, symbolizing those who might have attended the inauguration of the nation’s 46th president, if it weren’t for the pandemic. A brisk January wind whipped them into motion, creating the illusion of human bustle and activity. The cameras stayed focused largely on the speakers and the speeches, including a young poet whose words tied together a teeming multitude of ideas and themes with the sinews of inner rhyme, alliteration and associative images.
Throughout the day, from the departure of the Trump family to the ceremonial arrival of political leaders and dignitaries to the West Terrace of the Capitol, it felt like a study in the ambivalence, slipperiness and resilience of our primal symbols of democracy. The 45th president’s farewell ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base had a red carpet and 21-gun salute, but it felt forced and anticlimactic. For four years, the spectacle of moving the former president’s body always seemed full of weird drama — the golf carts, the brief limo ride during his covid-19 hospital stay, the use of military force to clear the way through a public park so he could carry a Bible a few hundred yards from the White House to a nearby church. And suddenly, he boarded Air Force One and it flew away and he was, for a few hours at least, entirely irrelevant.
We had been told, for weeks, that Trump’s decision not to greet the incoming president, sit and take tea, share a limo ride and watch his successor’s inauguration, was a shocking departure from protocol. In the end, it didn’t matter. Scraps of familiar music, shards of old prayers, fragments of yesterday’s speeches filled in the gaps and elicited the usual emotions, papering over the missing niceties. The Capitol, site of a deadly attempted insurrection just two weeks earlier, looked resplendent in the morning sun. The city was on lockdown, its streets mostly empty, its monumental core encased in fencing and barricades. But the emptiness made it feel only more like a stage set, manicured and perfect. These events are always made for TV, which in any ordinary year would leave one a bit cynical. This time, we could blame the visual contrivance on the pandemic, which seemed to excuse it a little bit.
I tried, several times, to see it all through my weary, Trump-trained eyes, to see it as he might encourage his followers to see it. The absence of crowds? Try to see it as a failure, as a vote of no-confidence in the incoming president. The assemblage of the political elite? Try to see it as a cabal of insiders, indifferent to the well-being of the people. The huge and disruptive security measures? Try to see it as a marker of the country’s division and the new president’s lack of a popular mandate.
But I couldn’t see any of that. The compromises made to the pandemic, and the very real threat of far-right extremist violence, only made sense. Every face mask felt like a little step to redemption. Every soldier on the street seemed a painful acknowledgment of a disease that is deeper and more entrenched than we have had the courage to acknowledge.
Somehow, when the old president reached one last time into his grab bag of grievance and rhetorical narcissism, there was nothing left of his power, not even the power of shock or disgust. “So, have a good life, we will see you soon,” he said, in closing, to a small crowd gathered on the tarmac, many still defiant in their refusal to defend themselves and others against the virus. “So, have a good life,” sounded like an absolute farewell, such as the dying give to the living; “we will see you soon,” sounded like a promise or a threat, or perhaps just one last jumble of logic before this cumbersome figure loaded himself into a giant plane, and jetted off to a life of golf, lawsuits and bitterness.
The new president didn’t touch on any of this, not a note of triumphalism, and only a few cautious and circumspect references to the turmoil and chaos of the past four years. The pandemic let him talk about collective suffering without broaching the subject of his predecessor’s combativeness, cruelty and incompetence. Indeed, Biden’s inauguration also marks the inauguration of the pandemic in a larger sense: now, finally, it can be acknowledged as a national trauma, mourned collectively and eventually memorialized somehow in the nation’s capital. When he and his wife, Jill, and Kamala D. Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, stood at the end of the reflecting pool on Tuesday evening, looking down a corridor of lights to the Washington Monument, it felt like this most imperial symbol of America’s origins had been entirely repurposed into a funeral marker — a solitary, silent, sad sentinel to death’s year-long march through the land.
The flags in front of the Capitol were supposed to represent the inaugural crowds who couldn’t be there in person, but they also invoked the more than 400,000 who have died from the coronavirus pandemic. Just last October, artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg assembled some 200,000 white flags near the city’s armory, just two miles from the Capitol. She wanted to memorialize what was already an unthinkably large death toll from the pandemic. Now the number has doubled.
This kind of art, based on the assemblage and orderly display of some small, telling object, is particularly associated with mourning, a way of visualizing what the mind cannot otherwise comprehend: death by the hundreds, or thousands or, now, the hundreds of thousands.
But the new president’s inauguration committee deftly repurposed this visual idea, a symbol of mourning remade as a symbol of presence, an idealized version of the crowds watching from home. Unlike the mob two weeks ago, this crowd was orderly. Unlike those who gathered in person to watch the event on the West Terrace, this imaginary crowd stood in proximity to one another, diverse, disciplined and almost touching in their togetherness. One symbolic idea slipped into another, mourning and loss sliding into celebration and connection.
Over the years, I’ve watched inaugurations from the streets of Washington, as a resident happy for a little free entertainment and historical drama. Today, as I followed on my computer screen, I tried to watch the day’s events with a more jaded eye, the same one I’ve cast on inaugurations almost since the first one I clearly remember, Jimmy Carter’s in 1977. And I couldn’t do that, either. The rhetoric of unity and healing was shopworn, the old references to Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were threadbare. But the funny thing about cliches is that, while we are by definition tired of them, it’s when we ourselves are exhausted — tired beyond measure, even broken into bits — that their power often takes us by surprise.
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning,” said the new president, quoting a familiar psalm.
During the speeches, prayers, music and 23-year-old Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, Biden sat on a chair better than the others, but not a throne. He looked every minute of his 78 years as he came down the stairs before passing under the red bunting into the morning sun. It was a strange contrast to perhaps the most famous and beloved inaugural of modern American history, John F. Kennedy’s, 60 years ago. Then, an old poet recited verses to a young president. Now, a young poet recited verses to an old one.
And then, two thoughts, two images came together. Biden was being inaugurated president, but he didn’t need to be the star of the show. And suddenly his age, often cited as a liability, seemed transformed too, into an asset rarely acknowledged in American society. Perhaps there’s a connection between his age and his modesty, his willingness to sit on the side of the show, to use “us” and “ours” more than “me” and “mine.” Let’s hope it is what seems to be: not the absence of vigor, but the presence of wisdom.
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