You could sense in the countenances of many of the A-list politicians on the stage at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol — recognizable even in their masks — a relaxed air of fellowship, a sense of order returning, like a lost ship cruising at last back into home port. It was notable that the name of the man vacating the White House was never mentioned by Biden over the course of his 21-minute inaugural address, perhaps the best-paced speech of his long life in politics.
Earlier, the vacating occupant threw a tacky and sparsely attended going-away party for himself at Joint Base Andrews — an event intended to attach grandeur to his departure for Mar-a-Lago, but all it seemed to telegraph was desperation. Donald Trump, for his part, did not bring up Biden by name, either. But did the world care anymore? That’s what the evaporation of power is like: Once you’re out of office, the global gaze instantly goes right over your shoulder.
The power flowing into a new administration was embodied by the exuberant visage of Harris, who often evinces on public occasions a radiant pleasure and, on Wednesday, gave the impression of barely containing her joy. After being sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Harris turned to Biden and brought her fists together in a physical expression of carpe diem. A viewer didn’t need a speech from her to know that there would be many moments ahead for her to seize, and Biden, seemingly instinctively, mirrored her gesture. An early sign of teammates taking cues from each other.
The number of onlookers, of course, had to be severely curtailed, both because of the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus and the security measures magnified by the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Despite the media buildup stressing the tenseness of Washington’s mood, one didn’t feel the anxiety. On television, the overhead shots of the gathering, with attendees on the National Mall in socially distanced seating, conveyed rather the idea of the confident and meticulous orchestration of an event of worldwide import.
That gained foundation in an elegant, emotionally resonant processional. The arrival of the Clintons, Bushes and Obamas put us back in mind of presidential continuity and eras defined by more conventionally amicable transfers of power. Michelle Obama in particular looked celebratory in a burgundy overcoat, turtleneck and pants belted with a dramatic gold buckle: It reminded this theater critic of the statement a costume designer seeks to make, in the royal raiment in a Shakespeare history play.
Eternally chic Lady Gaga, recruited to sing the national anthem, walked to her gilded microphone in a pouffy, avant-garde-ish look that could have worked for the Met Gala; even her earpieces were gold. A glittering J-Lo followed with a mash-up of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful.” Brooks, in trademark jeans and Stetson, sang “Amazing Grace.” Say what you will about our celebrity obsession, the participation of megastars does confer some validation on an occasion such as this. And the diverse audiences these stars command — Lopez broke momentarily into Spanish — affirmed the Biden-Harris ethos of inclusivity.
In his remarks, Biden seemed as comfortable and within himself as I’ve ever seen him as a public speaker. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) laid the groundwork with a warm introduction; we sometimes give too little credit to how the quality of the welcome mat laid out for a keynote can enhance or detract from its impact. Biden’s address was thematically streamlined, eschewing the personal reminiscences he has often relied on, on the stump: no references to growing up in Scranton, Pa., for example, no mention of the family tragedies he has endured and so frequently brings up.
This was a speech, as the old football saying goes, by someone who has been in the end zone before. A speech with one central goal: to assure the country that once again, a president would represent all of the people. It was more of a plea than a poem — the avuncular words of an ordinary Joe.
“Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another,” Biden said. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured. My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this.”
“I will always level with you,” Biden declared toward the end of his speech. It’s one of those phrases that makes you nervous when a salesman says it. But the many Americans yearning for an era of real candor will take his promise on faith, for now. He has set himself the assignment of being a president of plain truth rather than lies.
As if to drive home the distinction, he left the lofty language to the event’s youngest speaker, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet from Los Angeles whose spoken-word poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was the ceremony’s eloquent capstone.
“But while democracy can be periodically delayed,” she exclaimed, “it can never be permanently defeated.
“In this truth, in this faith we trust/ For while we have our eyes on the future/ History has its eyes on us.”
Her performance proved the most surprising star-making moment of an exceptional christening for a new administration. That her reference about history fixing its gaze on us came directly from the musical “Hamilton” communicated a hope that we’ve embarked collectively on an invigorating new production.