No Time for Caution, They Say

Screen capture from NBC’s coverage of the Inauguration.



Inaugural Day was bright and cold, with 200,000 small flags replacing an audience on the Mall, and the capital an occupation zone. The number of deaths from Covid passed 400,000, more than our WWII dead, as the sitting President winged away. None of it felt normal or right, but many watched in tears, as if it could soon be.

The chipper tones of broadcasters made the best of it. “Masks keep you warm,” an NBC analyst said. “It’s nice to hear the patriotic music,” said another. A video purported to show a military band marching past the White House, the night before, playing “Hit the Road Jack.”

News reporters exclaimed over Melania’s dress, Gaga’s brooch, J. Lo’s Chanel, and Michelle’s and Garth’s belt buckles. An argument erupted over $15,000 sneakers; memes went viral of Bernie dressed to stand in line at the post office.

Clearly, pomp had been deemed important for everyone to see. The swearing-in could have been in a bunker, after all. The stroll to the White House seemed risky.

“It gives us a sense we’re going to be okay,” said the NBC News anchor.

“The guardrails did work,” a senior official in the Bush administration told an NBC analyst. NBC reported that the departing President had vowed to return.

“At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” the new President said, in his first address.

“Trump came fairly close to winning the [Electoral College] despite huge public repudiation,” economist Paul Krugman tweeted. “Rs almost kept control of the Senate, allowing massive sabotage. Terrorists almost managed to kill multiple members of Congress. We’ve had a miraculous escape.”

“We are good people,” Joe Biden said.

“[E]ven as we grieved we grew,” said poet Amanda Gorman.

Biden, whose voice changed with the material, said urgently, “We’ll press forward with speed and urgency.”

“In another January, on New Year’s Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Biden said. “When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote: ‘If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.’” Biden sounded tired as the ages. He sounded like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

“We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together,” he said.

He spoke against those who acted for white supremacy. He assured the nearly half of the voting public who did not vote for him that he was for all of them.

“What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.”

“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” he said. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.” Michael Richard Pence stiffened, blinked. William Jefferson Clinton nodded off.

“Are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do.”

Paul Krugman tweeted: “Americans of good will need to make sure that we use this reprieve from disaster. This is not a time for caution.”

There was a familiar feeling in the unusual events. We had already seen Nixon leave the White House for the last time.

“[Joseph] McCarthy…was an aberration,” John Kenneth Galbraith said in a video I had open in a tab for months.

Many had held themselves tense for so long, had checked the news every few hours, for years. Now they were told to let go of all that, quickly.

One is reminded of Gregory Peck as Lincoln, who said in that other portrayal of the conflict around signing the Emancipation, “Times like this, I’m reminded of the story of two young boys trumping through the woods, and they run acrost a wild hog. The hog kind of took a dislike to ‘em and set out after ‘em. The boys run lickety-split, and one of ‘em shinnied up an elm tree just before the hog took out the seat of his pants. And the other one, to save his skin, managed to just grab the hog by the tail and hang on for dear life. And as they chased ‘round and ‘round the tree, he hollered up to his friend, ‘Come on down, Bill, help me leave go of this hog!’”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.