Commentary: Presidential inaugurations are theater. What a difference this new cast makes

Joe Biden raises his hand while taking the oath of office.
Joe Biden is sworn in Wednesday as the 46th president of the United States.
(Associated Press)
Share via

Character, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus contended, is fate. And it was Joe Biden’s character, magnificently magnified at Wednesday’s inaugural ceremony, that changed the destiny of the nation — that indeed rescued it from the depredations of a lazy, though determined, autocrat.

That morning, Donald Trump, a hobbled figure no longer in command of the spotlight, bid a flock of supporters adieu with his customary brusque ineloquence: “Have a good life.” He and First Lady Melania Trump boarded Air Force One for the last time as the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” a campaign rally favorite, blared confoundingly, the manufactured cheer of this gay anthem covering the historic moment in clown makeup.

Trump’s absence from the inauguration, though an affront to the tradition of a peaceful transition of power, was theatrical balm. This was a time for healing, for binding up the wounds of a nation reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and traumatized by the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that attempted to overturn the will of the American voters and install Trump for another four years of golf and chaos.


The ceremony was preceded the night before by a solemn event honoring the 400,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. President-elect Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, stood at the Lincoln Memorial as 400 lights were illuminated along the reflecting pool for a ritual of silent meditation and song.

It defies imagination to recast this scene with Trump, who viewed the pandemic through the exclusive lens of how it would affect his political fortunes. For the last year, the president pit short-term economic interests and a perverted idea of personal liberty against public health imperatives. The casualty toll was exaggerated, he falsely claimed, by media and a deep state out to get him. Grieving Americans were seen as a threat to his poll numbers.

Even before Biden was sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, the tone of Washington was undergoing a necessary sea change. This shift was theatrically consolidated in a somberly hopeful inauguration that assembled a group of dignitaries in protective face masks at a Capitol transformed into a defensive Green Zone.

Unity was both theme and practice. On the platform was a portrait of the country’s proud diversity. The American carnage of Trump’s 2016 inaugural address was replaced by the grandfatherly compassion of Biden’s political purpose. At 78 the oldest man ever elected U.S. president, he made clear that his ascent to the highest office in the land was meaningful to him not in terms of personal power but in the possibility for recovering the ideals of a nation that had been led astray by partisan rancor and treachery.

Restoring the notion of collective responsibility to shared truth was front and center in Biden’s address. But so too was an acceptance of mortality, without which wisdom is unattainable.

Grief shadowed him from the start of his career. As a young senator, Biden suffered the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident that left his sons seriously injured. But a more recent loss transformed his political aspirations.


In his remarks upon leaving his home state of Delaware for Washington, D.C., he was momentarily overcome with emotion that his eldest son, Beau Biden, who died of a brain tumor in 2015, wasn’t there to share the moment. Before he died, Beau encouraged his father to run again for president. Biden answered the call, but with the heartbreak of a father who would have given anything to have seen his son live to take his place.

Time, having become more precious and real, has exposed the folly of self-enrichment. “When I die,” he said in his farewell speech, “Delaware will be written on my heart.”

This salutary sense of bereavement, of a conscience awakened by the reality of human limits, infused Biden’s inaugural address with something that was missing during Trump’s tumultuous reign: humility. Not in modern presidential history has such a speech been delivered in so personal and confiding a tone.

It felt at times as though Biden were speaking to us across a hedge, neighbor to neighbor, after something untoward and destructive, perhaps a fire or horrible accident, had revealed the fragility of what connects us. Rhetorically, the speech may not have been especially memorable. But the delivery was suffused in felt truth.

Borrowing words used by Abraham Lincoln after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Biden dedicated his “whole soul” to what he identified as the challenge before us: “Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation.”

Reciting from “American Anthem,” he asked, “What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?” In evoking these lines, he was communicating to the American public that the onus is on all of us, not just those being sworn into office, to right this foundering ship. Democracy can last only if it’s a joint mission.


Biden has a reputation for being undisciplined as a political actor, of being garrulous and unrestrained, a geyser of flubs and faux pas. But age has extended his vision. As Biden spoke, I thought of words in Ted Hughes’ adaptation of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon”: “For the eye / That opens towards the grave / Sees the core of things and is prophetic.”

He spoke of racial justice, economic security and environmental stewardship while calling out the “foes” of prosperity and progress: “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.” The darkness in America’s DNA is visible to Biden. But like Lincoln, his faith is in the better angels of our nature.

In becoming president an old dream was realized, but the dreamer has changed. Ambition has given way to something nobler. He spoke as a man eager to be a bridge.

His selection of Harris, the first woman, Black American and Asian American to be vice president, is testament to this commitment. As was his choice of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman as the inaugural poet, the youngest recipient of this honor, who with preternatural poise gave voice in “The Hill We Climb” to the gravity and possibility of this historic turning point.

Inaugural festivity was tempered with relief. Even the entertainment — by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks — had an air of momentous sincerity. The future beckoned, but first we needed to exhale.