The silent sea of flags where crowds usually stand in their millions felt fitting in their way. Over America’s first behind-closed-doors inauguration they blew a curiously sombre air.
No one needs to be to be reminded that a mere fortnight ago, the spot where now-president Joe Biden stood with his hand on his family’s bible, was occupied by a bare-chested, self-appointed conspiracy-theorist shaman, wearing a hat of horns.
Grand public occasions bathed in this kind of eerie quiet tend to take place not on the grand balcony of the Capitol, but over the river at the Arlington National Cemetery.
One of the most curious differences between the British and the American way is that our grand occasions of state are private affairs, and what should be our public rites of passage go largely unseen. British prime ministers are, if you like, inaugurated, in a private room with the Queen, to which we, the people are treated to a single still photograph. Our equivalent of America’s grand public occasions are the births, marriages and deaths of our ruling family. So there was a certain curiosity in watching America carry out its sacred public rituals in semi-private.
Whether President Biden – alongside vice president Kamala Harris – will find the answers to the bewildering list of challenges he read out more than once we shall certainly find out, but as for the challenge of finding the right words for this particular moment, there can be no doubt Biden met that one.
“My whole soul is in it.” Six short words, borrowed from Abraham Lincoln, which he is meant to have said as he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Biden’s whole soul, so he said, is in restoring unity to America.
He was certainly right to point out that the other challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the injustices of systemic racism won’t be met unless the first one is met too, and it will be simultaneously the simplest but the hardest.
For watchers of politics, there is always the lingering doubt that all this is little more than a reality TV show. So much sound and fury is invested in it, but the points at which any of it really touch our lives are hard to find. In some sense, never has this felt more true than in the year just passed. What is a “historic day” in a world where no one leaves the house? Can “change” ever be said to come, when our horizons have narrowed to little more than the four walls around us?
It is especially true of American politics, which Brits have consumed with voracious pleasure for decades, if not centuries, often at the expense of an interest in European affairs, which affect us far more deeply.
The Trump years quite rightly made many of us wonder whether we should just zone out from all this. Whether the “free world” needed to look elsewhere for leadership.
But, in the end, we obsess over America because it is the largest, greatest manifestation of our values. It is their engine to which our trains are hitched and for a while it looked like it might sputter out of life.
It appears to have survived.
The principle difficulty President Biden faces is that he must seek to build unity but at the same time must disown the excesses of the other side. There must be a return to “facts”, he said, to “the truth”. At the same time, the Republican Party, with or without Donald Trump, appears to be fully in the embrace of post-truth politics. The unity he seeks will not be possible unless that changes.
And, in the end, this stuff isn’t just a TV show. America’s struggles with systemic racism, with healthcare, with its opioid epidemic are, by and large, its own problem.
But as Dr Anthony Fauci has warned, the coronavirus crisis is global, and the solution must be global. Even the richest, most selfish people, cannot hope to live a good life in a Covid-19 apartheid world. And the climate crisis is global, too.
That America is under new leadership, and a leadership that understands this, is a cause for profound celebration, and an equally desperate hope that it will last.