The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A president replaced. A nation redeemed.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris were sworn in, just hours after the 45th president, Donald Trump, left the White House on Jan. 20. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricki Carioti/The Washington Post)

The inauguration of President Biden on Wednesday was more than a transfer of power. In ways symbolic and substantive, it was the redemption of a nation.

Inauguration Day in the capital city dawned to fierce winds, as if Nature herself were sweeping away the pestilence, financial misery, political violence and lies. The winds carried departing President Donald Trump away on Air Force One three hours before Biden took the oath of office — the first time an outgoing president refused to attend his successor’s inauguration since the disgraced Andrew Johnson demurred 152 years ago.

The defeated president departed in typically vulgar fashion: He granted late-night pardons to scores of crooks and cronies after some clemency-seeking felons paid Trump allies lavishly; and ordered a last-minute cancellation of his “drain-the-swamp” ban on former aides becoming lobbyists or foreign agents.

On Wednesday morning, Trump staged a campaign-style rally with a couple hundred supporters at Joint Base Andrews, where family and aides shunned face masks and a sound system played “Macho Man.” Trump treated the crowd to his usual self-congratulation (“amazing by any standard,” “91 percent approval”), repeated oft-told falsehoods about his achievements, made a jingoistic reference to the “China virus” and spoke in the past tense of the still-raging pandemic that kills thousands of Americans daily. Reportedly plotting to form his own political party, Trump said on his way out that “hopefully it’s not a long-term goodbye,” and “we will be back in some form.”

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Air Force One taxied away to the strains of Frank Sinatra (“And now, the end is near …”). Arriving over Florida, Trump took the presidential aircraft on a joyride — flying low over his Mar-a-Lago estate.

Former vice president Mike Pence, a target of the Trump-incited mob on Jan. 6, declined to participate in this last stroking of a narcissist. Breaking with Trump, he attended the inauguration. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) also snubbed Trump, instead accepting Biden’s invitation to join him for pre-inaugural prayer.

Biden’s arrival was everything Trump’s departure wasn’t. The president-elect held a memorial for the 400,000 dead on Tuesday night (“to heal, we must remember”) and devoted a moment of silence to them in his inaugural address. Later, he joined former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama at Arlington National Cemetery, where they heard a 21-gun salute and placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Trump, who famously skipped similar memorials when in office, honored himself with a 21-gun salute at his departure rally.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. administered the oath to Biden 12 minutes early — as if capturing the bipartisan eagerness to turn the page. The words Biden spoke outside the west front of the Capitol, where Trump supporters staged their violent rampage a fortnight earlier, probably won’t be etched in marble or memorized by schoolchildren. He twice addressed listeners as “folks.” But his words reminded the world, and a shaken country, of what is good about America.

“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” the new president said. “On this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power.”

Biden denounced the “riotous mob” and vowed to defeat the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.” Crucially, he spoke of the restoration of truth. “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured,” he said. “Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson: There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty … to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

As the last minutes of his presidency ticked down, Trump, in Florida, took a slow motorcade ride past a throng of supporters in MAGA hats waving signs with messages such as “F--- Biden.”

Back in Washington, the 78-year-old Biden, hair askew in the wind, was about to take on the myriad crises — as he put it, “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness” — Trump had left behind.

There, on the same spot Trump four years ago spoke of “American carnage” — a dystopic vision he would make real — a 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman, showed Biden the way:

Being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It is the past we step into and how we repair it.

We have seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

It can never be permanently defeated.

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Read more:

Jeff Flake: What the Biden era will feel like, six months in

Marc A. Thiessen: Joe Biden is my president

Dana Milbank: Biden will offer ‘unity’ and healing. But first we need the truth.

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Biden delivers one of the best inaugural addresses in memory

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Joe Biden has already shown us that governing is back