Commentary: Kids, Know This Is Not What A Presidential Inauguration Looks Like

Jan 20, 2021

The overwhelming majority of us are hoping that today's inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris goes smoothly, without violence and without the need for most of the 25,000 National Guard troops who are in place to keep the peace.

We hope; we pray.

But It was only two weeks ago today when a lawless, violent mob of thugs, motivated by the bizarre fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving death and destruction in their wake. We watched that nightmare, that unthinkable horror, unfold on live TV.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6. at the Capitol in Washington.
Credit John Minchillo / AP

No wonder the nation is on edge about what could happen today in the nation's capital.

Whatever happens, it will be an inauguration like no other. Mainly because of the irrational desire of the man leaving office to make the new president taking the reins as difficult as possible.

I really hope that those with young children – kids who are just beginning to be aware of politics and the history of this country – can learn from their parents, grandparents and loved ones that this is not the norm – that the swearing-in of a new president is supposed to be a joyous celebration of the transfer of power in a nation of laws, not mob rule.  

In my career in journalism, I have covered four presidential inaugurations in person – both of Bill Clinton, the second inauguration of George W. Bush, and the first for Barack Obama.  

They were all celebrations, but the last, in January 2009, was the most joyous of all – I have said many times that it was the most remarkable event I have ever covered, with over two million people from every corner of the country coming to the National Mall in Washington to celebrate something Americans of earlier generations could not even conceive of – the swearing in of a Black man as president of the United States.

Barack Obama, with his wife Michelle and daughters Sasha, right, and Malia, takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009.
Credit Chuck Kennedy / AP

But, because of the threat of violence, the refusal of Trump to participate, and the fact that it will be taking place in the middle of a pandemic that is claiming the lives of thousands of Americans every day, this will be a different inauguration. There are so many things we will not see today that are the stuff of which inaugurals are made.

Despite all of this, the system works, no matter how hard some try to destroy it – by the end of the day, this country will have a new, duly-elected president.

But much of the pomp and circumstance of the occasion will be gone.

There will be no sprawling crowd of hundreds of thousands of Americans on the National Mall to watch the ceremony on the west front of the Capitol.  

Instead, because of COVID restrictions, there will be only 1,000 people scattered in socially distanced folding chairs in front of the platform.

There will be no inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, with marchers representing the glorious diversity of this country.

There will be no inaugural balls tonight – those glittering affairs where the president and his spouse hop from one to the other, dancing at each stop, as thousands of their loyal supporters party the night away. Even the media assigned to cover the balls must show up in formal wear in order for their media credentials to be honored. I always thought I looked pretty good in my rented tux.

There will be no pre-inaugural coffee at the White House, where the outgoing president and first lady greet the new occupants at the North Portico of the White House and usher them into the Diplomatic Reception Room for coffee and a chat.

Donald and Melania will have boarded their last flight on Air Force One, on the way to Mar-A-Lago. Apparently, the Bidens will be greeted by the chief usher of the White House staff. 

In the past, after the coffee at the White House, the president and president-elect would ride together in a limo to the Capitol where the formal transfer of power takes place at high noon.

None of that will happen. Bitter and angry, Trump won't attend the inauguration – the first sitting president not to do so since a bitter Andrew Johnson refused to go to the swearing-in of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, will be there.

For Biden's part, he doesn't care that Trump won't be there. "One of the few things he and I ever agreed on," Biden said.

Three ex-presidents will be there – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After the ceremony, Biden and Harris will go with the three former presidents to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

What will follow is an evening of "virtual activities,'' including a 90-minute TV special hosted by Tom Hanks and featuring performances by Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga.

Try as they may, there is no creating a "virtual inauguration" that can compare with the excitement of a real one.

Many of you know what I am talking about – thousands of people from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana have streamed into Washington over the years for the celebrations.

I was able to meet hundreds of them at the Clinton, Bush and Obama inaugurations I covered.

None compare to Obama in 2009. Over two million Americans gathered together in sheer joy at the history unfolding before them.

I remember the folks from back home vividly. I remember the 500 people who rode from Cincinnati to Washington in buses organized by the Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist Church. The group, made up almost entirely of African Americans, didn't have tickets to the inaugural events; they knew they would be watching the ceremonies from somewhere far away on the Mall. They hoped that they would find some other Black churches in Washington to take them in.

In the end, they were invited to camp out in the National Museum of the American Indian, just off the Mall, but far from the west side of the Capitol.

They ended up on a non-ticketed area of the Mall and watched the action on giant TV screens that were set up between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. They didn't care; they just wanted to be there and be part of the excitement, to share the joy of seeing a man who looked like them sworn in as the 44th president.

I remember Lois Cunningham of Mount Healthy, then 81, who for the first time in her life believed that people of her race could accomplish anything.

"Whatever you are, whatever you want, you can do it if you try hard enough,'' she said.

I remember climbing up on one of the press risers directly in front of the stage on the Capitol steps. I looked backwards, toward a massive crowd that stretched out to the Washington Monument – seeing nearly the same view that Barack Obama had when he delivered his inaugural address.

Crowds gather for the inauguration of President Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, on the west side of the Capitol in Washington.
Credit Scott Andrews / AP

I could see the Washington Monument, that towering obelisk dedicated to the general who led a fledgling would-be nation to freedom from tyranny at the hands of the British crown; and the first American president who established once and for all that there was no room for monarchy in this nation.

Off to the side, I could glimpse the White House, built for John Adams, the second president, by the hands of slaves – a house which, on that day, would be occupied by a Black man.

Beyond that, two miles from the Capitol, there was the Lincoln Memorial, with the 16th president's marble statue staring down the mall. I wondered what Lincoln, the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, would make of this day.

And, beyond that, across the Potomac River in Arlington, the national cemetery where thousands of patriots lay in eternal rest, having given their all to preserve freedom.

The view, encompassing nearly all of American history, must have taken Obama's breath away. I know it did mine.

It won't be like that today. It can be again.

That's why it is so important that the children of this country, having seen too much of this country's dark side, can grow up knowing just how great America can be. After all, it will be up to them to make it so.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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