Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president on Wednesday amid multiple converging crises in American life. Everything about the event, from the setup to the security to the speeches, reflected this reality. What was it like to actually be there? I spoke with New York’s Washington correspondent, Olivia Nuzzi, about her experience of a poignant yet strange day in Washington.
Benjamin Hart: It was obviously an unusual inauguration in many ways, what with the pandemic (though social distancing didn’t seem that rigidly enforced) and the riot two weeks ago, which meant much more heightened security than usual. But things seemed to go off pretty well. What was the mood like at the event itself?
Olivia: It was oddly intimate. Very quiet, due to the lack of crowds and the space between our seats. My first inauguration was Trump’s in 2016, and it was a nightmare — for the obvious reasons, but also because any kind of ceremony with lots of people in Washington is chaos in ordinary times (even if it was not the largest inaugural crowd in history, as Sean Spicer famously claimed).
This was sort of serene. And it was really beautiful to experience it that way, after what occurred on that very site at the Capitol 14 days ago.
Normally, you go to an event with lots of famous lawmakers and celebrities and the entire press corps, and you spend a lot of your time talking. Interviewing people, catching up, whatever. This one, we were only listening.
At one point, during a prayer, I looked around and ahead to my left, and Mitt Romney had this peaceful expression on his face and his hands clasped, and then I looked ahead to my right, and I noticed Mike Pence’s hands clasped the same way, and then I looked off to the side and watched Jon Ossoff for a moment and, over my shoulder, Jim Jordan and Paul Ryan. I just had this moment of thinking how strange it is to be here, everyone all together, all of these characters.
Ben: Do you think the gravity of what happened two weeks ago at the Capitol made Biden’s speech feel even more urgent than it might have, with his calls to get beyond the civil discord that has gripped America recently? What was the reaction (if any) in real time to what he was saying?
Olivia: It was hard to gauge the reaction because it was so quiet, and we were all separated from one another, and everyone’s got masks on. The usual ways I’d get a sense of that would be listening to the crowd or observing people’s faces. But it certainly felt that way to me. Now, I don’t think Washington is going to transform because Biden gave a lovely address and emphasized the importance of unity. This is a fucked-up city where most people in power only do the right thing if it’s the right thing for them. The trends of negative partisanship that have been worsening since the Gingrich revolution are not going to reverse course this afternoon. But as an often cynical and unsentimental chronicler of this place, I kept finding myself in awe of the reality of where we were and what the Capitol looked like two weeks ago. That the very site of an attack on the democratic process could become the scene of it working beautifully. I think, whereas I might normally roll my eyes at any pageantry, I understood its value today. When he finally took the oath, I felt like I could almost detect a collective sigh.
Ben: Have you been in touch with any Trump administration people about their thoughts on how things unfolded on Wednesday, with the outgoing president skipping his successor’s inauguration (the first time that has happened in 132 years) and giving a speech in which he told supporters, “Have a nice life, see you soon,” before flying to Florida?
Olivia: I was very busy trying to get to the inauguration today because I am always late for history, and this was no exception. I ended up making it there only because I ran into a group of senators and walked purposefully with them as if I was also a senator. But I have been in touch with some senior White House and administration officials (now former, with a few exceptions) all week, and they were pretty much expecting an exit like this. Lots of them steered clear of Joint Base Andrews, where Trump departed Washington from. Many of them seem to be in the position of wanting to suppress the fact that they were a part of the past four years while also desperately wanting to process it now that they are moving further and further away from it, almost as if they had left a cult. It’s funny because Trump hasn’t changed at all. He’s always been the same.