Commentary: Trump treated the arts as an adversary. Biden’s first day told a different story

Katy Perry performs as fireworks explode in the distance during the "Celebrating America" special
Katy Perry performs during the “Celebrating America” inaugural special on Wednesday night.
(Biden Inaugural Committee / Getty Images)

On the first day of the Biden administration, we had already seen something almost entirely missing from Washington over the last four years: A-list stars. Also, music. In the inauguration itself there were Lady Gaga, with her golden microphone and in-ear monitors singing the “Star-Spangled Banner”; Jennifer Lopez‘s medley of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful,” stopping to pick up “Let’s Get Loud” on the way; and Garth Brooks’ hatless solo “Amazing Grace.” Donald Trump’s 2016 inaugural events managed to field Tony Orlando, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), the inevitable Lee “God Bless the U.S.A.” Greenwood and the Piano Guys.

It’s not that there are no conservatives in show business. Trump is himself a product of show business, who once rubbed a fair amount of celebrity shoulders, and can — could? — still count on Jon Voight and Scott Baio for a thumbs up and Mike Love for another chorus of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” And it’s true that the performing arts trend liberal. By its nature, art welcomes innovation, even if art academies might sometimes not; it’s a haven and a platform for the marginalized, a way to be seen, even if the industries that rule the arts might block the way to stage. Cultural progress has always been driven from the outside, and from the bottom up, and Republican and Democratic chief executives alike have seen this for the great American narrative it is.

For the record:

11:20 a.m. Jan. 21, 2021A previous version of this article misspelled Jon Voight’s first name as John.

But Trump is a builder of moats and walls, disengaged from the world beyond his own concerns, a professional maker of enemies. If artists were hostile to Trump’s policies, Trump’s White House — perhaps from a self-protective attitude of “If I can’t have it, then I never wanted it” — was unusually inhospitable to or at best uninterested in them, routinely dropping the National Endowment for the Arts from his proposed budgets. He was the first president to skip the Kennedy Centers Honors, celebrating performers of every stripe, since they began in 1978; this was ostensibly “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction,” though it did not present any great challenge for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush or Obama. (There was music in earlier White Houses, as well, including a famous all-star jam session when Nixon awarded Duke Ellington the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) The musical evenings captured for public television over multiple administrations as “In Performance from the White House” — you may recall President Obama’s taking a verse of “Sweet Home Chicago” in a 2014 episode, backed by Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Jeff Beck — stopped dead in the Trump era.


Wednesday was a different story.

Combining the familiar and the novel, the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris sought to reassure the nation — and then to forge ahead.

Jan. 20, 2021

The Native American Dancers of Wind River perform during the virtual "Parade Across America"
The Native American Dancers of Wind River perform during the virtual “Parade Across America.”
(Biden Inaugural Committee / Getty Images )

The entertainment portion of Inauguration Day, not counting the three musical performances integrated into the inauguration itself, began soon after President Biden and his party arrived at the White House. In lieu of a parade, there was a virtual “Parade Across America,” pandemic-style, streamed online and broadcast locally by KTLA-TV. Quilted from brief performances and proclamations, it was a little reminiscent of the nominating tally from the virtual convention the Democrats ran last year, with each state and territory getting its piece. There were a Native American female color guard; the Fire Department of New York Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band; Chinese American lion and dragon dancers; a steel band and stilt dancers from the U.S. Virgin islands; college hockey players; BMX bikers; crop circle artists, ;TikTok personalities; Bango the Milwaukee Bucks mascot; a Philadelphia Boy Scout troup; North Carolina clog dancers; high school mariachis from Las Vegas and Idaho’s Red Hot Mamas, a “community service musical comedy performance group,” whose members (“from 30 to over 80”) are “dedicated to the exploitation of merriment and the enhancement of the ridiculous” and perform outside assisted living homes. It was very sweet.

The 90-minute evening program, “Celebrating America,” took the place of what in a nonpandemic year would have been random coverage of inaugural balls or perhaps a concert with an audience in. It began starkly, with a literally cold open, a bundled-up Bruce Springsteen on the steps of the of the Lincoln Memorial, accompanying himself on guitar for his song “Land of Hope and Dreams” (“Leave behind your sorrows/Let this day be the last/Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/And all this darkness past”). Then host Tom Hanks was revealed a little higher up — Hanks, the Springsteen of the movies; Springsteen, the Hanks of rock.

The music was both varied and likable across a range of tastes, which is to say, consonant with the theme of difference in union. There were the Black Pumas from the stage of “Austin City Limits”; Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons inside and outside the Stax Museum in Memphis; Jon Bon Jovi on a Florida pier singing “Here Comes the Sun” as the actual one came up; Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw in Nashville singing “Undivided,” a song that came to Hubbard as he was recovering from COVID-19; and the Foo Fighters, with the endlessly apt “Times Like These,” with Dave Grohl paying tribute to his teacher mother. Broadway performers were collaged in a medley of “Seasons of Love” and “Let the Sunshine In.”

Bruce Springsteen performs in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the "Celebrating America" special.
Bruce Springsteen performs during the “Celebrating America” special.
(Associated Press)

Quotations from the inaugural addresses of FDR, JFK, Reagan and Lincoln (“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” being apt to the theme) stressed the institution, the process and the people more than any previous or present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton were seen gathered earlier in the day to sprinkle good wishes upon the newborn administration. “I think the fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country,” said Bush.


President Biden put in an appearance, inside the Lincoln Memorial, fresh from signing 17 executive orders, a first-day record. “This is a great nation,” he said. “We’re a good people.” He used words like democracy, unity, humility, opportunity, liberty, dignity, love and respect. Hate, violence, disease and hopelessness were our “common foes.” Biden invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “dreaming from these steps across the mall,” acknowledged the pandemic, racial injustice and the climate crisis and stated his conviction that none was beyond tackling “if we do it together — and that’s what you’ll see tonight, stories of ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things.” Essential workers and imaginative volunteers got their due.

It’s not as if we haven’t had these sorts of celebrity-powered inspirational specials over the last few years, when inspiration was needed or a salute to the everyday heroes called for. But the most recent former president, who preferred to claim that everything was fine — and if it wasn’t, it had nothing to do with him — was not involved. His government steered clear. Well, perhaps they were never asked.

Key players behind the Democratic National Convention explain how COVID-19 safety shaped their choices, from at-home video kits to that roll call.

Aug. 30, 2020

Former Presidents Bill Clinton, from left, George W. Bush and Barack Obama speak during the post-inauguration TV special
Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama speak during the post-inauguration TV special.
(Biden Inaugural Committee / Getty Images )

Conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers and white supremacists would have felt themselves unrepresented here, to be sure, if any had bothered to watch; you can call for unity, of course, but not everyone wants to take your outstretched hand. (Even a Biden supporter might find his optimism a little quixotic at times.) Nevertheless! Perhaps some skeptical viewer, tuning in to see John Legend or Yo-Yo Ma, will have heard Biden’s words or those of Vice President Kamala Harris (“We shoot for the moon, and then we plant our flag on it. … We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up”) and found something there to like. Maybe some doubter caught Biden, back in the Oval Office and watching the show with family, holding his grandson Beau and bouncing along to Demi Lovato singing “Lovely Day” and thought, “There’s a man who knows how to hold a baby.” It’s a step.

Down on the mall, everything that wasn’t actually lit was dark. The Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the reflecting pool, lined by 400 lights to mark 400,000 dead from COVID-19, swam in a kind of inky sea. It was stark and arresting, but also intimate. Finally, there was Katy Perry, in marble white, with hair to match, Daniel Chester French’s 19-foot-tall seated Lincoln visible behind her. She sang her song “Firework,” and — a little on the nose, maybe, but, heck — fireworks commenced. The sky around the Washington Monument turned red, which, given the events of the previous week, felt worrisome for a second. But that passed. It was the start of something else, and President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden stood on the balcony of their new temporary home and held hands and watched.

‘Celebrating America’

Where: CBS, NBC and ABC
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday