It was the strangest of inaugurations. But in its own way, it was blessedly familiar.
There were no big crowds, the assembled dignitaries wore masks and sat an appropriate distance apart, and 25,000 soldiers and policeman formed perhaps the tightest security cordon ever seen in Washington, D.C.
It was different and yet the essence — the peaceful transfer of power — was the same.
Standing on an outdoor stage that was overrun two weeks earlier by a mob that broke into the U.S. Capitol Building, Joe Biden placed his hand on a family bible and took the oath of office as President of the United States.
Across the country, there was a sigh of relief, a calm, as if a huge weight had been lifted from our collective shoulders.
Dignity was back. So was hope.
No one at the ceremony said the name of Donald Trump, at least not in public. The 45th-president of the United States, in a break with tradition, refused to attend the inauguration of his successor.
He never really accepted the loss of the election. “It was rigged… it was stolen” Trump kept insisting, even though state officials and the courts never found any evidence of voter fraud.
And when Donald Trump couldn’t overturn the results any other way, he called on his supporters to take matters into their own hands.
At a rally by the White House, staged as Congress was getting ready to certify Biden as the election winner on January 6th, Trump fired up the crowd, urging his followers to go the Capitol and “stop the steal!” They took him literally, storming and desecrating the massive white domed building that has long been the symbol of American democracy.
America looked on in horror. For years, we had been warned of threats from abroad, now our COVID-weary minds began to wonder if the enemy was really inside us.
Donald Trump, whose 2017 inaugural address spoke of “American carnage” left Washington for his Florida home early on inauguration day, escaping just hours before Joe Biden was sworn in. He left a city in lock-down, with boarded up windows and security forces lining downtown streets just in case some of his supporters decided to return to Washington to attack the inauguration.
After the riot, some suggested the traditional outdoor ceremony with all its pomp should be moved inside. Biden said no… that all the trappings of the transfer of power were needed now more than ever. It was a way to show the public that our democracy had been tested, but had emerged far stronger – much like a sword tempered by fire.
And so there were military bands, well-known singers performing hymns and patriotic songs and the presence of three past presidents. Donald Trump may have been absent, but Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were all there, wearing masks and heavy coats to ward off germs and the winter chill.
All showed up to offer their support — especially Obama who reached out a gloved hand to Biden for a fist bump between friends.
How fitting. Joe Biden who served as vice-president to the nation’s first African-American president, chose a groundbreaker for his own number two: Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first person of color to hold the job.
Yes, history was made on January 20th, 2001 when Biden and Harris officially assumed power at the stoke of noon. Americans watched it on television — another virtual event in the age of COVID — and many a tear was shed. After so much darkness that our country has endured, there was finally a glimmer of light.
“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed…” was how the new president opened his inaugural address.
Biden did not downplay the real problems America faces — the pandemic, a hurting economy, climate change, and the need for greater racial equality. But he said with determination and purpose, these connected crises can and will be overcome.
“We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together,” was his theme and his vow, a call for unity instead of division.
“We all understand the whole world is watching,” he said, adding, “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world again… not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”
The challenges are great — both home and abroad. The new president said it is time to move forward… to open a fresh chapter in American history… to move from darkness to light.
As he spoke… almost as if on cue… sunshine began to flood through the January clouds.
He addressed the nation from the vantage point of a man of 78 – a true elder statesman who has seen much in his lifetime and has experienced the most excruciating pain: the death of his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash decades ago and, more recently, the loss of a son to cancer.
And yet, he spoke of faith and new beginnings.
So did the speaker who followed.
Amanda Gorman is the nation’s first youth poet laureate. Barely tall enough to be seen over the speaker’s podium, the 22-year-old descendent of slaves recited a poem inspired by the events of January 6th — the day the mob tried to take over the Capital.
Read her words. Hear her voice.
“The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
if only we are brave enough to be it.”
Joe Biden knows.