It wasn’t the same. But it worked, and it was glorious. And it moved me to think back on past inauguration days.
Four years ago, many of us were slumped in anticipatory depression as Donald Trump was inaugurated. The day after, I joined in the women’s march in Washington, D.C., along with many of you in similar demonstrations in Seattle and around the world.
Our concerns were not unfounded and largely fell short of how terrible reality would prove during the four years of Trump.
But, as politicians and others like to say, it’s a new dawn. On January 20 we watched and the world watched the Bidens and Harrises walk up the steps where two weeks earlier domestic terrorists rioted. Then we watched the oaths of office, and we could finally start to say “President Biden” and “Vice President Harris.”
Lady Gaga sang the national anthem, wearing a dress (I think it could be called a dress?) that featured a large golden eagle pin perched on her chest. Jennifer Lopez, swathed in pearly white, sang “This Land is Your Land” accompanied by the President’s Own U.S. Marine Band. Garth Brooks sang “Amazing Grace” after removing his matching black mask and black cowboy hat. (Note that Jill Biden, Nancy Pelosi and several other women also matched their masks to their coats). Dignitaries attending included Past Presidents and first ladies Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, George W. Bush and Laura Bush, and Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Amanda Gorman, 22, the youngest inaugural poet, recited the most amazing poem, referring to herself as a skinny Black girl descended from slaves.
The sun shone and flags filled the mall where usually spectators would have swarmed. Thousands of troops stood guard to assure security. At times it looked like almost any other inauguration — except we saw the first woman, first person of color, sworn in as vice president. And everyone was masked except when singing, taking an oath of office or giving an inaugural address that emphasized “decency and dignity, love and healing.”
Afterward, we did not see a traditional inaugural parade up Pennsylvania Avenue. For many inaugurations, I would rush from covering events at the Capitol to the office of my magazine’s government relations team for a prime viewing spot overlooking the parade route. There’s nothing like watching high school and college bands from across the country strut their stuff. But given these abnormal times, the Biden-Harris inaugural team pulled together an impressive modified parade mixed with lots of virtual content from around the country. The few bands on Pennsylvania Avenue include the University of Delaware Drumline and the Howard University Drumline — the respective alma maters of Biden and Harris — that joined the official escort from the Capitol to the White House.
We also did not see the usual rounds of inaugural balls. This is an inauguration during a pandemic. It’s not only security concerns that changed many inaugural traditions. It also was the risk of one of the proudest events in our democracy turning into a superspreader.
I, for one, do not miss the inaugural balls, but I do miss seeing a new first lady’s inaugural gown.
I went to my first ball as a guest when my husband worked for a member of Congress from Oregon. It was the Western States ball and took place in the long hall at the Kennedy Center. I bought a gown and my husband wore a tux (which may have been a first for him). It was not the fairy tale evening I naively anticipated. We stood for hours in the crowded venue with only a cash bar offering mediocre wine and a few bar nuts that quickly disappeared. Those who had paid a lot more to attend and had been donors were in a VIP area with better fare.
On the upside, Little Richard was on the stage belting out his unforgettable songs.
President H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush [President Clinton and First Lady Hilary Clinton] arrived, took the stage, danced a few bars, and, well, that was it.
In future years, I ended up going to various balls as a reporter. The new president and first lady would make cameo appearances at the official balls, usually about seven. Most of those I attended were in the Washington, D.C. convention center. Its concrete floors would be covered with a thin rug that did little to cushion the surface when you are standing for hours. Faux plants and other décor would try to camouflage the bare bones venue.
I learned to tuck an energy bar or two in my purse and to wear low comfortable heels. I dressed in appropriate black tie-ish attire but nothing too fancy because I often ended up eventually sitting on the floor waiting for the big moment.
But then the big moment would happen and all discomfort forgotten. Most memorable: Barack Obama’s first inauguration with Michelle Obama wearing that gorgeous off-the-shoulder white Jason Wu gown.
It was on a Girl Scout trip to the nation’s capital that I first visited the Smithsonian exhibit of First Ladies featuring their inaugural gowns over the decades and centuries. I little dreamed that one day I’d watch four different first ladies dance in their inaugural gowns.
I wish the Bidens and Harrises could have had a swirl of inaugural balls to celebrate their big day. Even from afar, I would have loved to watch those iconic moments of President Biden taking Dr. Jill Biden in his arms to dance a few steps. And on my next visit to Washington, D.C., I might have gone to the Smithsonian to see her gown added to the collection.
In such abnormal times, however, I don’t regret the lack of some of the pomp and circumstance. This is an inauguration more about circumstance than pomp, and that’s a good thing.