WASHINGTON (AP) — The reminders of the siege were everywhere.
On the very spot where President Joe Biden delivered his inaugural address, an insurrectionist mob had tried — and failed — to overturn his election just two weeks before. Nearby, at the Capitol’s West Terrace doors, a police officer was brutally assaulted with a flagpole in a one of the siege’s most chaotic moments.
And from the podium, the starkest sight of all: a National Mall mostly empty, dotted with troops, the usual crowd of spectators replaced by a silent field of American flags.
The Associated Press has the privilege of a seat on the inaugural platform every four years in a tradition dating as far back as anyone can remember. But there had never been a ceremony quite like this, in the still-fresh aftermath of a violent challenge to the peaceful transition of power that the inaugural is designed to celebrate.
Solemn in purpose and demeanor, Biden did not work the room — not much, anyway. He was on a clock. At noon, he would become president.
And at that moment, the Democratic-heavy crowd gave the new president hearty applause, with some of the House lawmakers in attendance audibly voicing relief.
Unlike Trump’s 2017 inauguration, which featured a speech that promised an end to decades of “American carnage,” Biden returned again and again to a theme of national unity.
“I thought that inaugural ceremony today was so filled with energy, spirit and love,” said Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, senator and a losing presidential candidate in 2008 and 2016.
Performers included Lady Gaga, whose soaring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” left some in the audience agape. Garth Brooks, a country superstar and Republican with a huge following in Trump strongholds, led the group in “Amazing Grace.”
The blue jean-clad Brooks, obviously elated, almost danced away, but not before greeting the new president and three ex-presidents — including an oops-I-almost-missed-you hug with former President George W. Bush.
“He just said, ‘I love you guys,'” Clinton said, with a hearty laugh. “And we said, ‘We love you too, Garth.'”
Republican Sen. James Lankford, from Brooks’ native Oklahoma, said the message of grace is just what a riven nation needs.
“He made time when he finished singing to then go personally greet every one of the former presidents there and give them a very non-socially distanced hug, to be able to touch base with everybody and to try to set an example for people to say, ‘Hey, let’s figure out if we can actually extend some grace to each other during this time.'”
Young poet laureate Amanda Gorman was beaming — under her mask — after receiving plaudits from Vice President Kamala Harris, Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
“I was really nervous while I was doing it, so I’m kind of glad it’s over,” Gorman told The Associated Press. Given the reception she was getting from so many big names and important people, she said, “I’m smiling but you can’t see it.”
Biden delivered his 21-minute address before a teleprompter in a stand of photographers. The teleprompter ensured a quick pace and gave Biden helpful hints such as a reminder to “build” to the finish. Biden had just a handful of small verbal stumbles and couldn’t resist adding an unscripted “folks” — a personal trademark — toward the end.
Before the ceremony, a morning mist left the platform icy. The wind whipped throughout. There were just enough snow flurries to tell stories about. And by the end, the sun came out and shown brilliantly.