President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 was a ceremony like no other in the history of the presidency. The specters of pandemic and political extremism dominated the planning and execution of this year’s ceremony on the same steps of the Capitol where, just two weeks before, an enraged MAGA mob had tried to stop the certification of the 2020 election results that gave Biden a clear win in both popular and electoral votes. Despite fears of COVID-19 and domestic terrorism in Washington, the inauguration went on as scheduled, and, once again, history was a tangible spirit at a quintessentially American ceremony.
Presidential inaugurations have in the past mixed pomp, politics, parades and protests. In 1913, supporters of voting rights for women surged through the streets of Washington in a protest that upstaged the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson the next day. In 1969, protesters against the Vietnam War filled the streets of Washington during the inauguration of President Richard Nixon.
In 2001, this writer was on the scene with pen and camera as large crowds of protesters thronged the nation’s capital during the inauguration of President George W. Bush after the hotly contested election of 2000. As the presidential limousine made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, the parade route was packed with angry Americans hoisting protest placards with messages like “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” and “Hail to the Thief.” Despite their anger, in 2001 and 2005 the protesters were peaceful.
By 2005, the Iraq War was raging as Bush was inaugurated for a second term in the White House. Again, thousands of antiwar protesters were gathered in Washington during the ceremony and the parade. Again, I was there to document the event. Gold Star Mothers Celeste Zappala and Sue Neiderer, who lost their sons in the Iraq War, drew shouts of sympathy and solidarity from the crowd during brief speeches. Zappala shouted, “Don’t be disheartened. Don’t give up. Don’t let my son down.” Neiderer cried, “Bring the troops home now,” as she and many in the crowd turned their backs on the passing presidential limousine.
In 2009, the inauguration of Barack Obama packed Capitol Hill and the National Mall with a crowd of some 2 million people on hand to view the swearing-in of the first African-American chief executive. I was in the press area at the Obama inauguration, so I had a prime view of history as it happened on a bitterly cold day in Washington. The day was a civics lesson come to life as the federal government’s executive, judicial and legislative branches played their respective roles in the ceremony.
It was cold in the capital when Obama was inaugurated. My train pulled into Union Station right on time, and, after passing through seemingly interminable security checkpoints, I picked up my press credentials. I knew in advance that hotels in the area were booked solid, so I spent the night trying to doze in the train station; then I headed to the Capitol nearby as soon as the sun rose over the building’s stately dome. Even in the early morning hours, the streets were packed with people. Soon the crowd grew into a biblical multitude, and as I stood in the media area near the Capitol steps I could see a solid carpet of people stretching for some two miles from the inauguration site all the way to the Lincoln Memorial in the far distance. Flags fluttered in the steady wind from the Potomac, the mood of the spectators was sunny despite the cold weather, and I felt both lucky and honored to be there to document the story of a moving and unforgettable day in America.
I had seen history happen before in Washington. I had seen the city clouded by tear gas during protests and illuminated with fireworks during Fourth of July celebrations there. Never had I seen history as close and palpable as it was when I stood on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20, 2009, and saw this nation’s first African-American president speak words that should be underlined today: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them.”
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