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Biden inaugural: Abrupt pivot to civility in post-Trump era

US flags representing those who could not attend

US flags representing those who could not attend the inauguration due to Covid-19, flutter in the wind at the Mall before the Inauguration of US President-Elect Joe Biden in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's braying yells faded from the capital as he flew to private life in Florida, with Air Force One tuned in to President Joe Biden's inauguration on television.

Quite suddenly, at least for a freeze-frame moment, the old ways were back: rituals dating back two centuries, scenes of grace, calls for unity.

Four years after Trump's dark portrayal of "American carnage," Biden set out his intent on the same platform of the flag-bedecked Capitol to write "an American story of hope."

The ascension of the 46th president came with poetry, trumpets, Lady Gaga singing the national anthem, Garth Brooks singing "Amazing Grace" and keen memories of the insurrection on these grounds by Trump supporters only two weeks earlier. The bigger names may well have been upstaged by the inspirational poem by 22-year-old Amanda Gorman.

"Democracy has prevailed," Biden said in his sober remarks, adding, "We must end this uncivil war."

"Modest, austere, grave, calming, cleansing, inspiring," historian Michael Beschloss said of Biden's speech.

Biden emerged from Blair House, the president's official guesthouse, to open his day just as Trump vanished inside the big plane at Joint Base Andrews, as if their footsteps had been choreographed. But the outgoing president was not one to coordinate anything with the incoming one.

Trump never conceded the election, declined to attend the inauguration, upended the tradition of sending a government plane to bring the president-elect to Washington and didn't extend the usual invitation to welcome his successor to the White House before the swearing in.

Biden opened his presidency acknowledging former presidents on the platform, Republican and Democrat, and Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, who attended the ceremony and acknowledged Biden's victory in ways Trump never did. Biden did not offer a personal acknowledgment of the man he defeated, nor did Trump mention him.

Under threat of conviction from the Senate on an accusation of inciting insurrection, Trump departed with a perfunctory nod to those who have died from the coronavirus, an obligatory wish of "luck" to the next administration without mentioning Biden's name, a premature claim on any success Biden might have reviving the economy, and the cloudy threat of a return.

"Have a nice life," Trump said in remarks to well-wishers upon his departure. As Air Force One flew low along the coast, Biden's inauguration played on Fox News on television aboard the flight. Trump's family was on board. He spent some of the flight with flight staff who went up to him to say goodbye.

Rituals of the republic went on without him, though in a way never before seen. Washington got on with things, this time with masks on everyone (except Brooks), people taking care to distance from each other and some 25,000 National Guard troops deployed to keep the peace.

In a striking tableau at the Capitol, three former presidents and first ladies of different parties mingled as though at a cocktail party.

The inauguration crowds were sparse by design, with invitation-only guests at the immediate scene and 200,000 small flags standing in place of the citizens who would have come if the capital's core hadn't been under military lock and key and if no pandemic had been sweeping the country.

Yet Raelyn Maxwell of Park City, Utah, came with an American flag, a poster board sign reading "Dear Women of Color, thank you" and a bouquet of roses she hoped to toss to Kamala Harris if she could somehow get close enough to the new vice president.

"I protested 45's inauguration," she said of Trump, the 45th president, "and I wanted to be here when he left. "And I wanted to celebrate the new president." She also carried Champagne to toast the occasion with friends here from France.

Biden, the second Roman Catholic president, attended a morning mass at St. Matthews Church with at least three Baptists — Harris and Republican leaders Mitch McConnell from the Senate and Kevin McCarthy from the House — and the Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish.

It was one of those bipartisan, not to mention multifaith, events that Washington is known for, coexisting with searing political division.

St. Matthew, patron saint of civil servants, was a tax-collector and, on the brighter side, an apostle who spread the gospel exhorting people to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you," according to the church's teachings.

There were stirrings of that Wednesday.

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