Instead of the usual gaudy inaugural balls, Wednesday night’s big event was a 90-minute special called “Celebrating America.” And it definitely was not a ball, as in it wasn’t a ripping good time with prom-like gowns — but that certainly wasn’t the goal. The goal was to begin the post-”American carnage” healing, to honor newly minted President Biden and Vice President Harris, and to pay tribute to Americans on the front lines during the pandemic.
On that level, it was a perfectly successful event — sober, beautifully staged, and symbolically welcoming. The tone was earnest and, with some straining, consistently hopeful, which is why Tom Hanks, one of our American totems of sanity and unity, was in charge. The actor soothingly brought us through the events of the night, which was based outside at the Lincoln Memorial, the cameras managing to slip Honest Abe’s face into the background of as many shots as possible. The most basic qualities of the night — the orderliness of the live and prerecorded material, the complete absence of negativity, and the oft-corny statements of respect for the American ideal — were themselves particularly powerful after four years of narcissism and crowd-size insecurities.
A night featuring inspiring quotes from past presidents, open references to the pandemic and its sorrowful effects, platitudes about the greatness of democracy, and not one single reference to the name of the outgoing president and his many gripes? Oh yes, yes, please. I’ll take two.
The musical acts were consistently on message — in terms of healing — each in their own way. If you’re inclined to be moved by Bruce Springsteen, you got exactly what you needed to trigger a few tears, as the Boss — Abe behind him — stood alone singing “Land of Hope and Dreams,” with its timely lyrics about how “Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/And all this darkness past.” Jon Bon Jovi sang the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” from a pier in Miami, smiling as the lyrics reminded us that after lockdowns and years of chaos, “It’s all right.” Demi Lovato singing Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” with essential workers joining in on screens behind her, and John Legend belting out “Feeling Good” and the line “It’s a new dawn,” were fittingly rousing, as was the fireworks display accompanying Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Live audiences might have made it all more electric, but, well, pandemic. It’s scary to think that, if the results of the election had been different, the night’s events probably would have featured live audiences.
We heard Lin-Manuel Miranda recite “The Cure at Troy” by Biden’s favorite poet, Seamus Heaney — finishing with a clip of Biden reciting the same poem. We saw Biden and then Harris address the nation once again. And we saw former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama together talking about the peaceful transfer of power and its importance — an image, Hanks noted, that is particularly potent when you imagine the rest of the world looking at it. We haven’t completely broken with history, the moment — and the entire special — seemed to be saying. We’re back on track, along with some of the predictability and sentimentality that come along with normality.