Today the nation’s eyes turn to the National Mall in Washington. For a century and a half, beginning with Andrew Jackson, US presidents had been sworn in on the east side of the Capitol, facing a landscape that over time became cramped — hedged in by congressional office buildings, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. In 1981, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s, the inaugural ceremonies were shifted to the west side of the Capitol, effectively turning the broad marble terraces of the great building into a sanctuary, and the sweeping National Mall into the nave of a great open-air cathedral. The ecclesial image is apt, since the presidential inauguration is secular America’s sacred liturgy of renewal. Facing west over the Mall, the ceremony has profound resonance.
Especially now. The very landscape of this national shrine shows the conflicts that long pitted Americans against each other, and those conflicts aren’t merely history. The span of President Obama’s difficult first term has revealed how impossibly torn the American fabric was. Yet the Mall also shows the pillars of a 21st-century political order — not a past but a future, which America today celebrates.