The stately swearing-in of a newly elected president has been accompanied by celebratory events since the inauguration of George Washington on April 30, 1789 in New York City. It is a day that signifies a unique and fundamental feature of a successful democracy: the peaceful transition of power through free and fair elections.
Washington took the oath of office outdoors, on a balcony off the Senate chamber in Federal Hall, so that “the greatest number of the people of the United States, and without distinction, may be witnesses to the solemnity.” After his swearing-in, the night sky exploded in fireworks over the city and the streets were so thronged that Washington had to abandon his carriage and walk home.
The details of this important passage have changed over time in tune with circumstances such as war, weather and the wishes of the new chief executive and Congress. For 2021, the nation needs to re-think the inaugural activities again. It’s not the year to pack the National Mall with guests or measure success by crowd size; instead, it’s an opportunity to create a decentralized, technology-driven event that reflects our national values and highest ideals and engages people from across the country, not just in the capital.
Decisions about the nature of next year’s inauguration must be made soon. Planning is already underway by the staff of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which oversees the presidential swearing-in events at the U.S. Capitol. The House and Senate leadership who are the members of the joint committee met for the first time on June 30.
It’s hard to know exactly what circumstances will exist on Jan. 20, 2021. Past inaugurals have persevered through bone-chilling cold, terrorist warnings, protest demonstrations, and epic crowds that overwhelmed local transportation, hotels and security arrangements in DC. But next January could combine all that with a recurring pandemic that hits older people hard, a president in his 70s, a deeply polarized country, uncertainty over when the election’s results will finally be decided, and an energized electorate. Whoever wins the presidency, we can expect more than the usual number of large demonstrations. In short, it’s a recipe for a super-spreader health disaster.
We must think seriously what a re-imagined inaugural could be. Start with what’s necessary. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution requires only that the president be sworn in by noon on Jan. 20. It is a serious and defining moment of democracy. The rest is revelry, rooted in tradition. And, as George Washington would have wished, it can be opened up as a national event to the greatest possible number of Americans from every walk of life, not only to watch, but to join in. One can imagine grassroots organizations, members of Congress, religious groups and others hosting their own inaugural events virtually (or in small groups, conditions permitting), sharing and connecting online, perhaps with virtual cameos at the Washington, D.C., based events. The Capitol ceremonies need not be limited to singers, choruses, poets and speakers able to be present in person.
Traditions can be changed. Since 1801, inaugurations had been held on the East Front of the Capitol. But in 1981, the swearing-in ceremonies for Ronald Reagan were moved from the East Front, which looks out on the Supreme Court and Library of Congress, to the majestic West Front, with its expansive panorama of the mall and the capacity to hold hundreds of thousands of people. Four years later, the weather was so frigid that Reagan’s second inaugural ceremonies were held inside the Capitol Rotunda.
The official transition doesn’t even take place publicly when Jan. 20 falls on Sunday, as happened in 2013 and 1985. Those years the president and vice president were quietly administered the oath in the White House the day before the celebrations.
In recent decades, the inauguration has become a mass spectacle in Washington, D.C., for those with the means, stamina and access to participate. Other Americans merely watch it on television. Following the ceremony on the steps of the Capitol, Congress hosts a private lunch for the president and invited guests in Statuary Hall in the Capitol. Immediately afterward, the president and his entourage leave the Capitol for a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and an evening of parties across the city.
The taxpayers shoulder the cost for events at the Capitol through federal appropriations, while the president-elect establishes a Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) to organize and finance the parade and inaugural balls. There’s not enough time under the best of circumstances between declaring the winner of the election and Jan. 20 to adequately organize PIC and coordinate with Congress, not to mention the ethical dangers of raising millions of dollars in a matter of weeks from private donors who expect prime access in return. This year could be even worse.
The coronavirus is forcing improvisation throughout society. In May, media networks, celebrities, politicians and educational institutions scrambled to create a unique one-hour super-celebration to salute the achievements of millions of students in the class of 2020 whose once-in-a-lifetime high school graduations had been cancelled, and throw them a party as well.
The Sundance Film Festival, which typically packs tens of thousands of people into venues across Park City, Utah, has announced that it will take place next year simultaneously as smaller live events in Park City, at cinemas in at least 20 other cities, and online. Strict social distancing rules will limit the number of people at in-person events, but for the first time a larger, more diverse, more geographically dispersed audience can “co-create” and participate in events. And it will take place the week after the presidential inauguration.
The pandemic also is unleashing fresh waves of creativity among performing artists and their audiences. Theaters and music halls are closed, but musicians are coming together across continents for live performances online. Playwrights, actors and directors are repurposing stage plays as virtual experiences, and creating entirely new genres of stories adapted for cloud-based platforms that barely existed two years ago.
We can do the same with next year’s inauguration. This is a serious time in our history. More than 130,000 Americans have already died from coronavirus and there’s no vaccine or cure in sight. We are in the midst of profound soul-searching with respect to race and our long history of racism. And our system of elections is being tested as never before. Let’s celebrate in ways that acknowledge the gravity of the moment, invite all Americans in, and provide hope for our post-COVID future.
Ms. Bordewich was staff director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for the 2013 inauguration. She is currently a program officer for the U.S. Democracy Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The views expressed are her own.