In a way, it was – after all the tumult, all the warnings, all the worries, all the preparations – an unremarkable ritual, conducted in a capital enveloped in an unremarkable hush for what was, after 58 presidential inaugurations, an unremarkable formality. But on a day of two presidents – two Americas – it nonetheless was a remarkable moment.
It did not require country singer Garth Brooks, his black cowboy hat removed for the moment, to remind a divided country that this was a day of amazing grace, the title of a hymn written exactly a decade before George Washington took the same oath of office that Joe Biden took Wednesday.
And yet its most poignant moments came in silence. The outgoing president left the White House Ellipse, his Marine One helicopter circled the Washington Monument (closed for fear of domestic terrorism) and the Capitol (the site of a riot he incited), and all the time Donald Trump looked down, quite literally, on the Washington he occupied but failed to conquer.
Hours later, the incoming head of the executive branch asked the assemblage on the West Front of the temple of the legislative branch to spend a moment in silent prayer for the 400,000 who have died during the pandemic.
No day of this significance passes completely in silence in Washington, where Mr. Biden distinguished himself 48 years ago as one of the capital’s most compulsive talkers. And on the day power in America passed between two presidents, the words of their predecessors – words uttered in hope, struggle, purpose – seemed to saturate the air with history.
It wasn’t only because the day’s remarks contained a subtle invocation of Franklin Roosevelt’s “rendezvous with destiny” (FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech); a bow to John F. Kennedy’s “we observe today not a victory of party” (his 1961 inaugural address); and strains of three speeches by Abraham Lincoln, with allusions to “the better angels of our nature” (his first inaugural, 1861), the “last full measure of devotion” (the Gettysburg Address, 1863) and “malice toward none” (second inaugural address, 1865).
It wasn’t only because the capital had not seen an inauguration day remotely like this one since 1861. That was when General Winfield Scott, once a presidential candidate, organized troops to protect Lincoln, who entered Washington in near stealth and who began his presidency against a backdrop of scaffolding on the Capitol Dome, a metaphor for a country unfinished and under construction.
It wasn’t only because the ritual included the swearing-in of the first female, Black and Asian vice-president, Kamala Harris, who placed her hand on the Bible once owned by Thurgood Marshall, who before he became the first Black Supreme Court justice argued the 1954 case before the high court that ended school segregation and opened the doors for her.
And it wasn’t only because, with the quiet scratch of his signature on as many as 15 executive orders, Mr. Biden began undoing much of Mr. Trump’s policies.
But it was the reality as much as the rhetoric that was different, as two sets of nuclear launch codes in Mr. Trump’s possession expired and were activated for Mr. Biden – and as the White House completed a frantic five-hour offensive to deep-clean the executive mansion and move out the possessions of the 45th president and replace them with those of the 46th.
The new President, a stutterer since childhood, delivered with confidence and purpose a speech that emphasized unity on what he called a “day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve.” The themes were familiar, but they possessed a special power when delivered from an inaugural stage.
It was pure Biden – and perhaps a purely distilled balm for a country exhausted by the upheaval of the Trump years.
The former president did not go quietly into retirement. He luxuriated in the four ruffles and flourishes that customarily come before Hail to the Chief.
He suggested his departure was temporary – “We will be back in some form,” an echo of Frances Cleveland’s remarks when her husband, Grover Cleveland, left the White House on March 4, 1889, after being defeated by Benjamin Harrison. “We are coming back just four years from today,” she said. On March 4, 1893, the Clevelands did return.
For his part, Mr. Biden’s life has been marked by optimism in the face of hardship and resiliency in the face of tragedy. He is aware that a few executive orders and some new furnishings in the White House cannot cleanse a country soiled by division and rancour.
Wednesday started with prayers at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where the Kennedy family, along with a riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, walked for his funeral. There, Mr. Biden, who once consciously imitated the Kennedy style, was accompanied in prayer by a Baptist (GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell), a Jew (Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer) and a fellow Catholic (Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi).
For one brief shining moment – a phrase Kennedy loved, from the Broadway musical Camelot – the Biden moment was marked by the unity he seeks. “The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated,” Bill Clinton said in a letter he left for George W. Bush 20 years ago. He added, knowing both the responsibility and the opportunity of the office now held by Mr. Biden, “The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible.”
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