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IN a Washington bearing the scars of recent conflict, a 78-year-old born in the depths of a world war yesterday began a long battle to restore his country’s soul.
The inauguration of a President is commonly a day of celebration in the United States, a chance for the country to demonstrate to itself, and the world, how a peaceful transition from one regime to another is done. As the protest chant goes: “This is what democracy looks like.”
On this day and at that hour, democracy was trying hard to look her best. The usual crowd of dignitaries stood on the steps of the Capitol, only this time they were a regulation distance from each other and not hugger-mugger as of old. They wore masks of every colour but there was nothing festive about the sight.
Out in the National Mall where the public traditionally gather, 200,000 US state and territorial flags stood to attention.
Adding to the military air were 20,000 National Guard troops, dressed in camouflage and toting guns, while a metal fence with barbed wire on top provided a grim frame to proceedings. If you had ever wanted to see what an inauguration in a war zone looked like, here it was.
What had happened to America the beautiful between the inauguration of Donald J Trump in January 2017 and the swearing-in of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr four years later?
Some might say Mr Trump happened, and leave it at that. Yet if the divisions that blight the country are to be healed as its new President fervently wishes, Americans must realise that no one individual could have brought the US to this point on his own.
Yes, this inauguration day looked as it did because a deadly mob acting in Mr Trump’s name had stormed the Capitol, seeking to overturn the election result and crown him anything but the loser he was.
Yet January 6 has not been the only tragedy to strike America. A virus has swept across the United States, as it has the world, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. Two for every one of the 200,000 flags in the National Mall, and the dying not done yet.
The closest inauguration day to this, in terms of the struggle ahead for the 46th President, was that of Franklin D Roosevelt on March 4, 1933.
He too addressed what he called “a stricken nation”, though in the midst of a financial crash he thanked God the difficulties were “only material things”.
President Biden, the economy ravaged by Covid, has material difficulties to tackle, and spiritual, political, and many other ones besides.
Having spent a lifetime trying to be President, enduring the loss of his first wife, a daughter, and a son along the way, his time has finally arrived. All those questions asked during the campaign about whether he is up to the job will now be answered.
Among the early arrivals at the ceremony was Vice-President Mike Pence, his graciousness in contrast to that of his former boss, the first President to boycott the handover since Andrew Johnson in 1869. Mr Trump flew out of town to the strains of Sinatra singing My Way. A ham to the end.
His wife Melania, who had left Washington in a severe black outfit, stepped off the plane in Florida in a summer dress, appearing to all the world as if she was keen to get the party started on her new life.
At the Capitol, past presidents Clinton, Obama, and Bush were meeting and greeting attendees. They had been there, done that, got the grey hairs to show for it.
Kamala Harris arrived. Harris the history maker, the first woman Vice-President, first African-American VP, first Asian-American VP, had a fist bump for Obama, the history maker of old.
After welcoming speeches and prayers, the podium wiped with disinfectant after each speaker, the announcer asked the crowd to welcome Lady Gaga. Well of course he did. In this inauguration day like no other, who else would sing the national anthem but a pop star who once wore a dress made of raw beef?
Lady G had dressed down for this occasion in a gown boasting a giant golden dove of peace as a brooch.
She was terrific, knocking the song out of the park as the locals say. As was Jennifer Lopez, blending Woody Guthrie’s hymn to the common American, This Land is Your Land, and America the Beautiful. Garth Brooks sang Amazing Grace, and how sweet was the sound. And a new star was born in the poet Amanda Gorman with her work, The Hill We Climb.
Ms Harris took the oath of office, followed by Mr Biden, their pledge to protect and defend the constitution “against all enemies foreign and domestic” assuming special significance given recent events.
The pair were in such a rush to swear in they were running ahead of schedule.
Officially, Mr Biden was not due to be President for another eight minutes, at the stroke of noon, DC time. But he stepped forward to speak anyway. It was a day for bending the rules.
His was a speech familiar from the campaign trail and from inaugural addresses past. He appealed for unity, for understanding and compassion, for healing. “We must end this uncivil war,” he declared.
At times he faltered, but his conviction was never less than strong.
The ceremony over it was time to get on with the rest of the heavily amended schedule.
Instead of a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue there was a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Instead of black tie balls, virtual parades were to be televised and a 90-minute prime time special, hosted by Tom Hanks and featuring Justin Timberlake and Jon Bon Jovi, was scheduled.
Americans had never seen anything like this inauguration day. Many will hope they never do so again.
Yet the day passed and democracy prevailed. And so a new day, a new presidency, begins.