So it ended, so it begins. We ought to give ourselves a moment this weekend to take pleasure in the end of a strange, grinding era and rejoice in the continuance of something we had blithely taken for granted: the peaceful transfer of presidential power. That jewel in our crown had been there a long time; we’d neglected the binding wire and setting and it came loose. The aim of the inauguration was to show it is back in place, immovably, as are our institutions, and our 200-year-old way of moving forward in the world.
It was all very handsome and well done, a real achievement considering the circumstances: a pandemic, an insurrection in the Capitol two weeks earlier, and what amounted to a military occupation of the streets. The swearings-in took place in what amounted to a militarized ghost town. There is a grim defensiveness in a guarded, boarded-up, fenced-off Capitol Hill and White House. Their relative undefendedness in the past was an assertion: We have nothing to fear from each other. You lose a lot when you lose that.
There was no way the planners could produce a happy, moving inauguration with that degree of difficulty. Yet they did. It was a day worthy of a great people.
I did not, unlike everyone I know and almost every conservative, find tears in my eyes. I just felt gratitude and relief.
What a hunger there is for “normal,” for stately, serene and dignified. For seeing forms maintained.
Crucially, the world saw it. It won’t change their minds about the mess and weakened state America is in, but they’ll be impressed we regained our composure. The past few weeks, or years, they’d had it in the back of their minds that maybe we’d run out our string. Wednesday would have left them thinking: Maybe not.
Arrayed before the world were former presidents, the chief justice, members of Congress and representatives of the institutions—the military, law enforcement, the press right down to the scrambling photographers. The corny old music, the flags going by, the bands and drums and flutes, the old majesty re-enacted and, through re-enactment, to some degree restored.
Lady Gaga looking delightfully freakish, and killing it. China, you have penetrated every data cloud and downloaded every invention, you have discipline and determination and believe the future is yours, but you don’t have Lady Gaga.
It wasn’t a scandal Donald Trump wasn’t there, it was a gift. He would have tried to harm it in some way, cast a pall.
The inaugural address was what the moment needed.
More than President Biden’s other speeches it reflected who he is, his essential nature and intent. Yes, he is a practical pol, a lifer who enjoyed being called Senator and relished making the kind of deals that leave the deal makers safe and the public possibly served with what might turn out to be a useful initiative, or at least one that is high-minded and generous. He is sentimental, not cerebral, and blarney is his default setting. But he is sufficiently cunning to last half a century in public life and rise to the top. And he loves his country in an old-school way, with an old-style heart on his sleeve. When he recited from the Pledge of Allegiance—“One nation, under God, indivisible”—you know he meant every word.
The heart of his speech was an urgent call for unity. We must unite as we have in crises past—if we do, everything is possible. But so much is tearing us apart. “We must end this uncivil war” between groups, races, conditions. We must move past “exhausting outrage.” We need tolerance and humility. We cannot allow our tensions to break us up: “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.” “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.” This seemed aimed not only at his political opposition but at some of his party’s constituent groups.
It was clear he wants to be the Great Unifier. That’s what he meant when he asked those who didn’t vote for him to “take a measure of me and my heart” and vowed, “My whole soul is in it.”
Good for him, that’s the ambition for this moment. Will he have the force, judgment and toughness to become what he wants to be? We’ll see. But it’s the right thing to want.
His instincts are generally and historically those of a moderate. If he is allowed to proceed and govern as a liberal centrist who yet has a canny sense of where he can push the edges, it will be one kind of presidency—quite possibly a unifying one. If not, it will be another.
There were clichés, the banalities we’re all used to—“A day of history and hope,” “the American story,” all that stuff. But they too had the odd effect of being reassuring. In a time of jarring change some things continue.
As for former President Trump, one wants to be gracious as a man leaves—but what was departing was a national trauma.
His goodbye rally at Joint Base Andrews was intended to show the spirited and temporary receding of a titanic force. It didn’t. His remarks were wan and offhand, and the White House had to scramble to get people to come. His last words in public as president: “Have a good life. We will see you soon.” Then he flew off to Xanadu.
Shortly after, the alt-right group Proud Boys disowned him as a “total failure,” and QAnon message boards lit up. They had believed in “the plan,” when that conspiracy was always fantastical and bizarre. Now they were concussed. Mr. Trump was gone. Were we played? Yes, you were played. Now get offline and go find your life.
A final thought on Mr. Trump. It is one thing to come into the presidency with no particular class or dignity, as a person who knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It is another and almost an achievement to leave the presidency like that—to have been untouched by the grandeur, unchanged by the stature and history of the office. None of it rubbed off and improved him. His supporters see this as proof of his authenticity, of his irreducible Trumpness. It is not. It is proof not that he couldn’t be reduced but that he couldn’t be enlarged.
Anyway it’s over, and goodbye to all that.
Hollywood, you would do us a great kindness if you would stop for a while making movies and series that show how sick and corrupt politics is, and how conniving and immoral our political leaders. Your cynicism helped lower standards and reduce expectations. It had a leveling effect. After you gave them decades of fictional bums they one-upped you and started electing real ones. People could use a little faith now, and inspiration.
Can a good inauguration and speech heal the nation? No. But they can assert an attitude, they can turn the page, help people feel something new is beginning, maybe something better. They can encourage citizens to take part.
Those things were done. Now onward to new history.