The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden may have taken place under the sad, anxiety-provoking shadow of a still-active pandemic and a recent insurrection at the same Capitol that served as the backdrop for the swearing-in of Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. But from a visual standpoint, the inaugural ceremony signified a return to joy.
In ways both orchestrated and seemingly the result of divine intervention, the official ushering-in of the Biden administration managed to conjure a feeling that had been elusive during the previous four years: hope. You know, that thing Barack Obama invented?
Hope was conjured in the words spoken. Biden used it four times during his Inaugural Address. “Together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear,” he said to a crowd that was deliberately pared down because of the coronavirus. “Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness.”
And indeed, lightness and brightness were everywhere. They were in the sun that shone down as Biden spoke and in the brief but seemingly magical white snowflakes that fell as the ceremony got underway. Those flakes drifted gently from the sky the way all snow should: softly, without causing too much disruption.
Joy was visible in the blended red, white, blue, and rainbow hues of all the American and state flags planted on the National Mall, which were captured in multiple crane shots for those watching on television or on their laptops or phones. There were splashes of magnificent, joyful color in the ensembles worn by many of the high-profile attendees, because on Wednesdays when Biden and Harris are inaugurated, we wear plum and burgundy (if you’re Michelle Obama), periwinkle (if you’re Jill Biden), and rich royal blue (if you’re the first Black, South Asian, and female U.S. vice-president in history). Every one of these women projected off the screen like a beacon, with a pinch of bling for extra shine. The new First Lady’s coat-and-dress combo, by Markarian, had a hint of shimmer. Even with her face largely covered by a mask, Harris’s eyes twinkled and crinkled, betraying the smile underneath. And the appearance of the 44th First Lady and her belt — that belt! — knocked all of Twitter all the way unconscious. There is only one proper way to say this: Michelle Obama looked fly AF.
Senator Amy Klobuchar wore mustard. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood out in peacock. Ella Emhoff, the stepdaughter of Vice-President Harris, topped off her plaid with a spritz of glass shards from the ceiling shattered by her stepmother. And if there had been an actual memo that read, “Ladies, wear coats that pop” — and it sure seems like there was — that memo definitely reached Amanda Gorman.
The Black, 22-year-old, first-ever youth poet laureate wore a blazer as yellow as the sun in a first-grader’s drawing of what a happy day looks like as she read “The Hill We Climb,” a poem she composed in the wake of the attack on the Capitol. Hers were the most hopeful remarks of the day, partly because she grounded them in realism — “The dawn is ours before we knew it. / Somehow, we do it. / Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed / A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished” — but also because she was the one delivering them. During a ceremony that ushered yet another old white man into office, the planners of that ceremony were wise enough to acknowledge that the future really belongs to the Amanda Gormans of this country.
This inaugural ceremony also brought glamour and celebrity back to presidential events, with Lady Gaga looking the way Lady Gaga should, wearing a life-size peace-dove pin and a red balloon skirt big enough to cover the population of a small town, and Jennifer Lopez, J-glowing in all white. Garth Brooks showed up in all black to sing “Amazing Grace,” but Brooks is required to color-coordinate with his signature black Stetson, so an informal fashion pardon was granted.
At no point during this ceremony was the name Donald Trump mentioned — now-former vice-president Mike Pence was there and acknowledged — but the contrast between the imagery in this ceremony and what we’ve seen in the past four years was blindingly apparent. While Trump’s inaugural ceremony launched the term American carnage and largely unfolded during a rainstorm (rain that Trump, of course, denied had actually fallen throughout his speech), Biden spoke of being “devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts,” as the sun undeniably shone on him and the National Mall.
There was certainly visual evidence of what the country has been through, and continues to go through, as a result of Trump’s presidency. It was there in the masks that, somehow, miraculously, members of both parties seemed more than willing to wear. The sight of Senator Ted Cruz, who spearheaded the effort to challenge Biden’s electoral votes and pushed the false narrative about election fraud, was a jarring reminder that only two weeks ago, insurrectionists by the score were climbing the walls of the Capitol that now were covered in patriotic bunting. Again: This nation is unfinished. But maybe it’s not completely broken.
During a farewell ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base hours before Biden’s inauguration, Melania Trump stood near her husband in a black dress fit for a funeral as he said the final inspiring words of his presidency: “Have a good life. We’ll see you soon.” After a sign-off fit for a signature in an eighth-grade yearbook, Trump left the stage as he had at so many of his rallies: to the sound of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” Then it was off to Florida, a journey cementing his status as the first president in 152 years to boycott his successor’s inauguration.
It was notable that Trump wasn’t there among the other incumbent presidents as Biden took the oath of office. It was also a relief, and you could sense that through the screen. Even during a pandemic and with unprecedented heightened security around D.C., everyone looked more relaxed than they had in four years.
On Inauguration Day 2021, you could feel the country exhale. And on television, you could see all the colors come out again.