At Joe Biden’s Inauguration: A Serene Scene Amid A Militarized Zone

A decade ago, the crowds attending Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s first inauguration were so great that a flood of ticketholders got stuck throughout the ceremony in a Capitol Hill tunnel, a snafu that was dubbed the Purple Tunnel of Hell.

This time around, save for Capitol Hill police and National Guard troops, there wasn’t an attendee to be found around that tunnel.

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There were, in fact, relatively few people at all at Wednesday’s inaugural swearing-in ceremony (in the low thousands), given the mandates of Covid-19 and the threats following the Capitol siege. Inside a vast security perimeter that surrounds the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in at a ceremony that seemed designed to inspire a sense of relief more than anything.

That’s despite all of the anxieties leading up to the moment: Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser urged people to stay away, and it’s no wonder: Bridges were closed, the National Mall was fenced off and Metro stations were shuttered. I managed to find one that was open, Eastern Market, about a mile away from my checkpoint near the Hart Senate Office building, surrounded by razor wire. Any fears of unrest were quickly dissipated by the presence of troops at the station itself, carrying their assault rifles and spaced about 10 feet apart. From there, few people were even on the streets of Capitol Hill, a rather tony neighborhood of brownstones and townhomes, and the only demonstrator spotted was the typical religious zealot convinced that Biden was going to hell.

With so few people attending this inauguration, the screening process was quick but extensive, plus proof of a negative Covid-19 test. Once escorted past even more troops to the west front of the Capitol, the martial atmosphere gave way to something totally different, a much more serene scene, where the concerns had more to do with staying warm as a chilly wind picked up and a few snow flurries began to fall.

Most guests who arrived at the steps on the west front immediately gazed at the makeshift inaugural platform, podium and risers, then looked up toward the polished Capitol dome. Then, even lawmakers who have some tenure are compelled to get their own iPhone photos in front of the presidential staging.

Just as inspiring was the view toward the west to the Lincoln Memorial, with a river of flags taking the place of people.

Jon Ossoff, hours away from becoming a U.S. senator, chatted with reporters before breaking away with his wife. “We’re going to take in the moment a little bit,” he said.

For about an hour beforehand, elected officials, Biden friends and donors mingled on the Capitol steps, where just two weeks ago rioters were pushing their way forward through security and in through the doors. Today, at the same place, the U.S. Marine Band played a selection that included John Phillip Sousa and James Stephenson’s “Fanfare for Democracy.”

Alex Padilla, about to be sworn in as California’s next senator, said that being at the inaugural felt like “a huge weight has been lifted,” more so because the era of Donald Trump was coming to an end.

Jeff Flake, who as an Arizona senator was one of the few Republican critics of Trump, predicted that the former president’s influence would fade away.

“I do think so; I thought so even before this,” he said. “Once you lose the trappings of office and the levers of power, and in particular Trumpism requires a certain amount of swagger that you lose when you lose. I thought that he would lose influence anyway. After what happened two weeks ago, that will just accelerate.”

By the time that Biden spoke, the sun had come out and the temperatures picked up a bit. The crowd was rather restrained, nothing like it was like back in 2009, as cheers went up as George W. Bush’s helicopter flew over the Capitol and the Mall. Nor was it like in 2013, when many attendees never got to hear Obama’s speech because one anti-abortion protester had climbed a tree and shouted throughout the address. Today Garth Brooks tried to get the crowd to join in as he sang Amazing Grace, but didn’t get too many takers. Perhaps the occasion was too solemn for even a short sing-a-long.

The scarcity of spectators made this ceremony different than any recent inauguration, less than by design than by a sense of caution. Perhaps the relative peacefulness of this swearing-in ceremony made standout moments more meaningful, as when Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” and the verse:

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it

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