After the events that propelled him into the presidency and those that marked the final weeks before his assuming office, it seemed something of a surprise that Pres. Joe Biden was quite so committed to an inauguration that looked relatively normal.
After all, in acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden’s nominating convention this summer had been an at-first shaky, but ultimately moving virtual affair; his victory speech was delivered to a drive-in crowd, socially distanced and honking their horns. That might have indicated that the inauguration would be delivered without the traditional assembled dignitaries. And that two weeks prior to his swearing-in, the Capitol had been under siege by domestic terrorists opposed to the rule of law, made a strong argument for canning the whole public to-do entirely and delivering the oath from an undisclosed bunker somewhere.
Instead, what was televised to the American people was a show of somewhat prosaic tradition, pushing forward for reasons of principle if not pragmatism. The logistical challenges of the day were written across the broadcast, starting with the masks worn by politicians in attendance. Then there was the striking visual of the National Mall — four years ago, the object of so much rage as the relative size of the crowd of admirers; today, occupied by a sea of flags, punctuation marks studding bare grass. The scarf-wearing fellow who wordlessly sanitized the podium between speakers seemed to be turning the page from the Trump era, in which the former President could not square his obsession with image with wearing a mask in public. The absence of Trump, the toxic star of television these past years, was perhaps another logistical challenge in its interruption of tradition, but felt in the end apt. The entire occasion was a scaled-back affair whose clumsy grace was a demonstration of a sort of faith in what lies ahead, and whose existence at all was a show of force.
Biden’s address, for instance, calling to Americans to unite in the midst of one of the hardest times in the nation’s history and to end what the President called an “uncivil war,” gained in rhetorical power from its setting, both the recently-salvaged building behind and the empty lawn below. Elsewhere in the ceremony, the benediction, by Delaware AME Pastor Silvester Beaman, referenced the concept of American castes as he reached with a sort of fire and passion to end “the stigma of the so-called untouchables,” and inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, speaking with a cadence that emphasized the bluntness of her words, referenced the events of Jan. 6, citing “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.” These were moments in the day that gestured towards what had been lost over the past four years of American life, but also toward greater issues simply than the just-now-former President who, for once, had missed a chance to be on television. They were also direct in a way that sometimes is lost in political theater, and in moments whose grand ceremony overwhelms pointed truth.
These moments in Beaman’s prayer and Gorman’s poem echoed Biden’s mien, and the tenor of the moment. Less adept than at least his two immediate predecessors at working the levers of celebrity culture — at leveraging his personal charisma to be loved, as had Obama, or feared, as had Trump — Biden’s approach of plainspokenness feels like something from a past era. And that approach was met by a ceremony that necessarily could not have the mass assembly of past cycles, and that taste dictated would be pared down at least somewhat.
To wit: The entertainment industry’s contributions to the event came in relatively unsplashy packages, with the most memorable of the three being a pared-down “Amazing Grace” by Garth Brooks, delivered with a sort of muted hope that met its moment. Similarly, Lady Gaga arrived in true-to-form massive gown and a jacket whose symbolic bird emblem seemed to evoke the justice-seeking heroine of Obama-era phenomenon “The Hunger Games,” but gave herself over to a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” whose final lines stopped short of the maximum possible vocal pyrotechnics. Even Jennifer Lopez, that flashiest of contemporary entertainers, leaned into relative simplicity for most of her patriotic medley (though her managing to squeeze in promotion for her back catalog of hits called to mind the relentlessness of celebrity culture, a pushy force that perhaps events of this sort can never fully be without).
Inaugurations cannot really feel contemporary: Were we to come up with a sort of civic festival from scratch nowadays, it would not look like this. It might look, on the left, like the celebrity-glutted early DNC proceedings from last summer, or on the right, like a Trump rally. Indeed, four years ago, Trump did his best to force the inauguration into his own image, accomplishing the goal through a memorably chaotic and angry speech that swamped the rest of the day. Forcing today’s ways of communication through the sieve of routines as ancient as our country can have a powerful effect. Biden’s variations on a generally consistent format seemed to have the effect of making it more elemental; the variations imposed by current events only compounded that back-to-basics feeling.
What normalcy was wrested from the day, though, took quite a great deal to pull off. Events of this sort will always include on-camera military personnel as part of the dramatics. But the degree to which, in streets and bridges off-camera, the District of Columbia had been effectively shut down in order to prevent a second attempt at violence at the highest levels of government suggested that bluntly identifying the problem would not be enough to solve it. It was in putting forward a demonstration of strength and reclaiming the steps of the Capitol that the ceremony either was expressing hope or playing pretend; the days and years ahead will tell us which.