Some pomp. Very different circumstances.
Inauguration day is supposed to be a star-spangled showcase of inalienable democratic spirit, the sort of patriotic, bunting-festooned display that only happens in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Instead, Wednesday’s ceremony making Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the 46th president of the United States is liable to feel more like a shotgun wedding.
“It is going to look like a country under siege,” said Brett Bruen, a consultant and former U.S. diplomat who worked as an adviser in Barack Obama’s White House.
The 2021 inauguration was never going to be the grand affair of past years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Jan. 6 rampage on Capitol Hill has only made matters worse.
Hundreds of furious Donald Trump supporters, rabid with the president’s lies of a grand conspiracy to deny him a second term, overpowered police and stormed the building as Congress was voting to certify Biden’s victory.
Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer. The FBI is investigating the possibility there was a plan to make it much worse. And Trump has since been impeached — again — on a single count of “incitement of insurrection.”
Law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, are bracing for widespread Trump-friendly protests in the city Sunday, as well as at state capitols from coast to coast, determined to avoid a repeat of last week’s violent pandemonium.
In downtown D.C., the legacy of that day is everywhere.
City block after city block, endless spans of imposing iron fence, patrolled by the National Guard, stand in place of the teeming crowds that typically line downtown streets whenever a new president takes the oath of office.
The U.S. Capitol Building, normally a sparkling backdrop to one of American democracy’s most sacred rituals, still bears scars from last week’s foundation-shaking riots. Some state capitols have boarded up their windows.
The people who usually crowd the National Mall — the iconic expanse of grass between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument standing sentry in between — will be replaced by a “field of flags,” a tribute to their absence.
And instead of the national capital playing host to a 24-hour marathon of black-tie cocktail receptions and glittering gala balls, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is urging people to stay away.
The images of tens of thousands of armed soldiers, police officers and other law enforcement officials in the streets, guarding the two-metre barriers encircling the Capitol, will be seared into the U.S. consciousness for years to come.
“All because of one man’s hurt ego,” Bruen said. “It’s a sad, shameful moment for our country.”
The Canadian Embassy’s location on Pennsylvania Ave., with a balcony and rooftop patio just a block from the Capitol, has long made it an ideal venue for watching the proceedings, including the inaugural parade.
In years past, an honour guard of RCMP officers would stand outside the building, saluting the newly anointed president as his motorcade drove past, while diplomatic staff hosted all manner of foreign dignitaries for a ringside viewing party.
“With the parade, you had the marching bands from every state — all 50 states and territories, they had marching bands,” recalled Gary Doer, who was Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. during Barack Obama’s tenure as president.
“Those marching bands will be displaced by marching soldiers. That’s just horrible — but necessary.”
The embassy has been sparsely staffed for months, thanks to the pandemic; that’s not likely to change any time soon. Spokeswoman Diana Tam refused to say whether any special security measures will be in place this week.
“The safety and security of employees working at our missions abroad remains a key priority for the government of Canada,” Tam said. “As such, we do not provide specific details regarding the security of our missions abroad.”
On Friday, D.C.’s normally bustling core was eerily vacant as military-issue Humvees and troop transports blocked major intersections and soldiers steered the usual commuter traffic away from downtown.
On every block, workers continued to erect the unscalable iron fencing that’s now a fixture at the White House and state capitols. Crews framed wooden barriers to protect storefronts from damage. Streets were largely deserted.
The famous Willard Intercontinental Hotel next door to the White House tried to rekindle some inaugural spirit with flags outside the windows and a banner welcoming the new administration. The stately Treasury Building had bunting decorating its pillars.
But there was no masking a sense of foreboding.
“I’m just so sad about this fortifying of our nation’s capital, not only with police but with the army, with guns slung across their chests,” said Susan Saudek, a retiree from Baltimore who lives just four blocks from Capitol Hill.
“I am just really sad for America that this has happened. At the same time, I’m grateful for the protection.”
The inauguration committee is doing its best to compensate.
Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem. Jennifer Lopez will perform. The proceedings will be carried live by most major networks, as well as a host of online streaming services.
Organizers say Biden will make his way to the White House via traditional presidential escort, “providing the American people and world with historic images of the president-elect proceeding to the White House without attracting large crowds and gatherings.”
And the day is to end with a star-studded prime-time celebration of the inaugural theme, “America United,” hosted by Tom Hanks and featuring performances and appearances by Jon Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato and Justin Timberlake.
Tracie McKissic, a D.C. resident and former high school principal who joined Saudek downtown Friday, said she was reminded of the words of author Masha Gessen in her 2020 book, “Surviving Autocracy.”
“She said it was time for America’s reckoning. And that’s what this looks like: America coming to grips with its truth,” McKissic said.
“I am glad to see people of diverse backgrounds being outraged that this is not who we want to be, that we can be something better, and different, and more about what our constitution says we’re supposed to be.”
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
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