Washington Breathes an Uneasy Sigh of Relief

Washington Breathes an Uneasy Sigh of Relief

“This is a great nation. We are good people,” Mr. Biden said, speaking in simple goals, sounding almost plaintive at times in his 21-minute address. “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.” He called upon a nation of citizens to renew its vows of dignity, respect and common purpose.

“We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden’s words did not so much ring triumphant as they conjured a sense of respite. The center had held and the system had survived, at least this time. “On this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the capital’s very foundation,” the new president said, “we come together as one nation under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”

Shorter version: “Phew.”

The ceremony was brisk both in temperature and in pace. No one shied away from the discord of the recent past. It would have been impossible in any case as remnants of the assault were everywhere: broken windows, dislodged signs and closed-off corridors inside the Capitol.

Eugene Goodman, a Capitol Police officer credited with diverting rioters from the Senate floor, was introduced to a somber standing ovation from the socially distanced crowd after he escorted the incoming Vice President Kamala Harris onto the inaugural stage.

After Lady Gaga performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” she and the new president shared a halting salutation, both seemingly unsure of the proper way to approach fellow eminence in these uncertain times.

“This is the first inauguration in the history of America where J. Lo was the warm-up act for Chief Justice Roberts,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who served as the de facto master of ceremonies.

The observance evoked a mood of some relief that democracy had indeed triumphed, though not without some anxious moments. There were tributes to the “peaceful transfer of power” along with ever-present reminders that this one hardly was.

“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious,” Mr. Biden said. “Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

Even without the presence of Mr. Trump, perhaps the most striking mark of his legacy was the weary capital he left to his successor. Mr. Biden’s inauguration was the most fortified such gathering in Washington’s history.

Helicopters pulsing over the city are never a reassuring sign. Neither are black fences, concrete barriers or the swelling ranks of National Guard troops that proliferated across town in recent days — some 25,000 strong in total, five times the number of American forces stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The few who ventured near the Capitol were mostly somber, as if they were attending a vigil. “It feels a little postapocalyptic, to be honest,” said Betsy Brightman, who drove to Washington from Philadelphia over the weekend “just to see this for myself.”

And to top things off: There was another impeachment only a week ago. A second Senate impeachment trial could begin as soon as next week, and will almost certainly ensure that the rancor of the Trump years will spill into the new administration.

Washington has never endured a stretch like this. “There is really no historical forerunner,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. The city has seen tense moments before, particularly in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “But we’ve never had a situation where you have an inauguration two weeks after a terrorist attack — and in the same location,” he added. “It has simply never happened before.”

Even after Wednesday, it is hard to imagine that the division and suspicion of the past four years will subside. Mr. Trump might be departing the city, but he leaves behind a defiant and determined army of followers, many of them in Congress. Large majorities of Republicans across the country remain overwhelmingly supportive of the departing president. They continue to embrace his false claims that the election was “stolen,” a drumbeat that softened only slightly after Jan. 6.

If Jan. 6 was Mr. Trump’s culminating disruption, Jan. 20 was Mr. Biden’s attempt to restore regular order. Everything about the new president’s demeanor and words reflected a desire to get on with things, to end the “American carnage” that his predecessor spoke of at his own inauguration four years ago. Even more so, Mr. Biden seemed determined to heal a breach in the country’s fabric, one that was expressed in an actual breach of the Capitol in this very spot.

“We will press forward with speed and urgency,” Mr. Biden said in his address. “For we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal.”

There is always a tendency to want to move on to the next chapter of history, especially when the last one was so exhausting. It is a natural impulse, unmistakably American, to want to seize the next.

Still, a recurring message around the Capitol in recent days has been the importance of remembering what the country has just been through.

In the Capitol Visitor Center on Monday afternoon, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, was waiting to receive a coronavirus test so that he could attend the inauguration. He said he had spoken that morning to a historian about the urgency of preserving for posterity some of the physical damage from the Jan. 6 attack.

“I don’t know if it’s broken glass or a broken window or something like that,” Mr. Romney said. “But it’s important that we have artifacts to remember this by. It’s important that we not forget so fast.”

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