Since George Washington took the first presidential oath of office in 1789, inaugurations have been held during times of war and peace, prosperity and uncertainty, strong unity and deep division. How will history remember Joe Biden’s inauguration? National Geographic deployed a team of photographers and writers around the nation’s capital to document this historic moment. Editor-at-Large Peter Gwin was among them, and he and Amy Briggs, Executive editor of National Geographic History, talk about how this day fits in with inaugurations of the past.
(sound of a bicycle and a bell)
PETER GWIN (HOST): Every four years, during the third week of January, the presidential inauguration takes over downtown Washington, D.C.
GWIN (on bike): OK, it’s Saturday afternoon, about 2:30, and I’m about to ride my bike into D.C., and just do kind of a loop around the Capitol and the Mall. It sounds like this is going to be an interesting next few days. So here we go.
People come from across the country to celebrate one of the hallmarks of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power. Excited crowds, bundled against the cold, line the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue. Fancy parties and events spill out of hotel ballrooms all over town. It’s kind of like a political Mardi Gras that happens once every four years.
National Geographic’s headquarters is located just a few blocks from the White House, so we’re always kind of in the eye of the storm.
(Background): So it looks like basically the whole Mall is shut down.
The inauguration of a U.S. president is always a historic event. Since George Washington took the first presidential oath of office in 1789, inaugurations have been held during times of war and peace, prosperity and uncertainty, strong unity and deep division. So how will history remember 2021 and Joe Biden’s Inauguration?
I’m Peter Gwin, editor-at-large at National Geographic.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): And I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
In this special episode, we’re heavy on the weird: the most surreal presidential inauguration in recent memory. We venture into the streets of the nation’s capital to talk to Nat Geo photographers reporting on the Inauguration. And we’ll also see where 2021 fits into the history of U.S. inaugurations.
BRIGGS: So, Peter, you’ve been all over D.C. It’s a global pandemic. And the most security of any inauguration in U.S. history.
GWIN: Yeah, Amy, so I’m downtown, right along the parade route, in a hotel room about a block from the White House—inside three rings of security perimeters. You know, I’ve been talking to some of our photographers that have been documenting this, as you pointed out, very unique inauguration, including Nina Berman, Louie Palu, and David Guttenfelder.
We actually watched the parade pass right under the window here—the Secret Service actually knocked on the door and told us we had to keep the windows closed. And it’s a prime view, looking down Constitution Avenue towards the Washington Monument. You know, it’s one of those views that makes you think about all the history this city and the country have seen.
So, Amy, as the executive editor of History magazine, you’re the perfect person to help us understand this historic moment. I know you’ve been digging into past inaugurations, so how did this process of installing a newly elected president get started?
BRIGGS: So we should set the scene: It wasn’t in Washington D.C.—it was in New York City, which was our capital back in 1789, when George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States. So funny story, the swearing in process is supposed to happen in March, but winter weather delays the arrival of everybody, so the electoral ballots don’t show up on time, which pushes his ceremony from March into April, which proves that electoral ballots have been somewhat of a tricky business since the beginning.
But Washington, he takes the oath of office, and then he delivers a speech—it’s the very first Inaugural Address. And in it, he’s thankful. He’s humble. He calls for national unity. And since then, delivering a speech like that has become a tradition that all elected presidents have followed, from George Washington to Joe Biden. So much of what Washington did set the standard for future presidents, including stepping away from power after only two terms.
GWIN: OK, so this is before presidents had term limits?
BRIGGS: Yep. So if George wanted to keep being president, all he had to do was keep winning elections. And he had a lot of support at the time. So he surprises everybody when he decides after only two terms that he’s going to willingly step away.
So he writes this farewell address in 1796. So if you’re a Hamilton fan, you can hear it in the song “One Last Time.” It’s in that musical. They quote it directly, which for a history nerd like me is very cool. So in the speech he explains his decision, but he’s really also reminding Americans that their republic is really a fragile and special thing, and that national unity would only keep the republic strong as long as they cherished it and protected it.
GEORGE WASHINGTON (as read by Jacob Pinter): The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness.
BRIGGS: So some heady stuff. So what Washington is talking about here, this threat to unity, is similar to what’s been plaguing our nation very recently, which showed up in full force at the Capitol on January 6.
GWIN: Yeah, so I'm always struck by Washington’s integrity on this issue. I mean, how many people in history ever gave up power, when they had so many people urging them to hang on to it? And you know, now we’re in the city that bears his name, and it’s been fascinating, and frankly disturbing, to watch it transform over the last several days. I was living here during 9/11, and there wasn’t anything close to the security increase that we’ve seen just over the last few days before the Inauguration.
GWIN (on bike): A lot of Capitol Police. Not sure which way I can go here.
You know, it’s hard—even on a bicycle, and roaming around—it’s really hard to see the city and all the facets of this moment as one person.
GWIN (on bike): Hey guys, can I go this way?
We called in a half a dozen photographers of all different backgrounds and experiences and sent them roaming across D.C. They’ve chronicled life and war and elections and so much more in the U.S. and abroad in their other work. And one of those photographers is Nina Berman. This is the fifth inauguration she’s covered. She told me, normally what she sees at an inauguration is just a giant party. But not this one. Let’s listen.
NINA BERMAN (PHOTOGRAPHER): The restrictions are, you know, way beyond anything I've ever encountered before. The city has kind of been depopulated except for people who are, you know, working in the Inauguration or involved in security. Outside of a certain zone, you can see kind of regular life go on in D.C., but inside the zones—kind of creepily called the Green Zone, like Baghdad—it's really kind of a little bit chilling. Quiet. Ghostlike.
The Inauguration was already going to be muted because of the pandemic. But then came January 6.
(SOUND OF JAN 6 MOB)
That was the day a mob of President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol as Congress was meeting to certify the results of the election.
(UP AGAIN Ambi: Mob!)
Photographer Louie Palu was there. And Louie’s not an easy guy to shock. He spent years traveling to the front lines of Afghanistan and covering Mexico’s drug wars, so he’s seen a lot of violent scenes. But I was curious to hear what he thought about seeing an event like that in the city he lives in.
LOUIE PALU (PHOTOGRAPHER): It wasn't just a protest. I think it was one of the most destructive moments in this country's history because it's about that building and the people in it that are elected. It’s what this entire—it's what everything is based on, from the Revolution through the Civil War. And I just think that what they did was they damaged something that you can't just glue back together or put some tape on and put some nails.
I think we'll recover. Like, you know, I try and think of things like Pearl Harbor, you know, 9/11 and other moments like that. But I think that this has a different thing because they actually attacked the house where everybody's democratically elected officials create policy and do things for the entire country, from rich to poor to white to Black, everything, everything happens in that building. And just so many centuries of putting that all together, they bruised it, they damaged it.
BRIGGS: You know, honestly I think we’re all still trying to process that day.
The way Louie describes the violence at the Capitol makes me think of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration. There wasn’t any violence there that day, but the Civil War is on the horizon and temperatures are running hot. You know, Lincoln even had to be snuck into Washington, D.C., to thwart a conspiracy to kill him—it was called the Baltimore Plot—before he took office.
So in his inaugural speech, Lincoln appeals to national unity to keep southern states from seceding, but he also warns them:
ABRAHAM LINCOLN (as read by Brian Gutierrez): In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it.” We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
GWIN: That’s a beautiful piece of Lincoln’s speech. I can’t remember hearing that recently, so that’s...
BRIGGS: So yeah, when people talk about Lincoln, they quote three speeches. They quote the House Divided, they quote the Gettysburg Address and they quote the second Inaugural. And the first one doesn’t get the big love. But you hear that phrase, “better angels of our nature.” When you hear presidents talk about our “better angels”? They’re calling back to Lincoln. This speech gets touched on a lot but it doesn’t get the big giant love the other ones do. So we know the issues that caused the Civil War, but how did we get to January 6, and by extension, to the massive lockdown in D.C. on Inauguration Day?
GWIN: Yeah, to understand how we got here, I think you have to look back at several events during 2020 that helped set the stage. So even before this, we sent photographer David Guttenfelder to document the COVID pandemic—this was way back in the spring, as things were getting going. He lives in the Midwest, he wanted to see the effects of the pandemic on the heartland. And then the protests that happened over police brutality, so he wanted to cover those.
David’s another one who has had a long career as a foreign news photographer, originally for the Associated Press. He covered conflicts in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’s reported on elections all over the world, from Liberia to Taiwan. But last year, major world events came right to his doorstep.
So he had a really unique perspective on the 2020 election.
DAVID GUTTENFELDER (PHOTOGRAPHER): The bitter divisions and the ways that people were calling into question the whole democratic process and kind of undermining things publicly, I’d seen that in other parts of the world. And I never—I always judged that as something that could never happen in the United States. And so when I saw, early on, you know, the president saying publicly that, you know, we don’t know if we can trust the democratic process. It all felt like something I had seen but couldn’t have imagined it would happen in the United States.
David actually road tripped to D.C. His road trip started in Minneapolis. That’s where he lives, and that was also ground zero for last year’s protests.
GUTTENFELDER: So I began at George Floyd Square. It seemed like the most natural starting point. Because, you know, George Floyd was killed on 38th and Chicago, and it sort of rippled across the country and the world. So I thought that that would be a really important sort of launching point.
GWIN: David said something else that was really interesting. There’s this grassroots effort to preserve the place where George Floyd was killed as a memorial. So David told the protesters, who still occupy that intersection, he was starting his road trip there. And they said it made all the sense in the world. Like, where else would you start?
GUTTENFELDER: I drove across the state of Wisconsin, like hitting very rural areas, you know, where I saw during the elections the bitter divisions between people who I, you know, had grown up with, from everything from the wearing of masks to politics to guns to, you know, whose lives matter to science. What I saw in rural Wisconsin was sort of the leftover remnants of the election: Trump campaign posters, “Trump” painted on the sides of bales of hay and farm fields.
(sound of the streets in D.C.)
GWIN: Out on the streets over the last few days, it was difficult to find many Trump supporters, but I ran into one this morning. He was wearing a NRA cap and we had just passed through one of many checkpoints, and we’re walking past boarded up shops toward the parade route. He told me his name was Bob, from Maryland—no last name—and he’d come to see the new president make the traditional journey down Pennsylvania Avenue. He made it clear that he disagreed with the attack on the Capitol, but he said he supported the right of the Trump supporters to protest the election.
BOB (TRUMP SUPPORTER): I think that was totally American to do. There was nothing wrong with them doing that or expressing their opinion. We're having the transfer of power here, but our society is divided so far, I don't think this is over. You're going to see a lot of demonstrations in the street and this is what it's going to be. Troops, plywood windows. Yeah, we as a society have gone different ways. We've lost the common moral core, and it's not coming back.
GWIN: The country is certainly divided and it feels like it probably will be for some time, but at least today, things were peaceful and orderly. So, Amy, how do you think history will remember this?
BRIGGS: I think we are a little too close to it to be right. With that caveat, tensions have been really running high for the last two weeks, you know, but we’re sitting here tonight—after all is said and done—and the Inauguration went well. The only unexpected thing was some snow.
First and foremost, there’s a milestone: Kamala Harris became the first Black person, first Asian American, the first woman to become vice president.
INAUGURAL OATH, Sonia Sotomayer and Kamala Harris: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me. I, Kamala Devi Harris, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; that I will well and faithfully discharge, the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
GWIN: Yeah, and so this is something I was really interested to ask Nina Berman about. She told me she’s been thinking a lot about Kamala Harris leading up to the inauguration. Here’s how she put it.
BERMAN: Well, I feel that Kamala Harris got a little cheated, to be quite honest, because I think that it would have been an amazing celebration. I think that you would have seen all those constituencies coming out for her and being present on the Mall and having parties and having all these things. So hopefully people are doing that in their homes, but we do not see, or I have not seen, anything like that on the streets of D.C.
BRIGGS: Well, my daughter and I raised a glass to the first Madam Vice President and Second Gentleman, so we had an amazing personal celebration at home.
GWIN: OK, probably the key event to any inauguration is the new president’s speech, which historians spend years scrutinizing and quoting, and all the things that, you know, making you write master’s theses on. So what makes a good inaugural address from a historian’s point of view?
BRIGGS: It’s tough to say. Usually the ones that get remembered are the ones that are given during times of crises or the ones that have really good quotes in them. FDR: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But what makes a good one—and there’s not any magic formula—but it seems like their themes, the things that they talk about, and it all tends to come back to unity. It comes back to this idea of we, as Americans, having our differences but still coming together as being American. So I think it was safe to say that Biden was going to talk about unity. That was a pretty safe bet. And you hear echoes of other these presidents in his address: Washington’s warnings about factions, Lincoln’s better angels, there are some great nods to Franklin Roosevelt as well.
JOE BIDEN: But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don't look like you or worship the way you do, or don't get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this, if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here's the thing about life. There's no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand. There are other days when we're called to lend a hand. That's how it has to be. That's what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future.
GWIN: So, Amy, with the world looking on, and photographers documenting the process, the United States continued its peaceful transition of power, which is the most important piece of this whole thing. And it’s a chain that’s been unbroken for more than two centuries.
BRIGGS: When you look back over those two centuries, you realize that it hasn’t always been the Democrats and the Republicans. You know, in U.S. history, political parties have come and gone: Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, Free-Soilers, the Bull Moose party. They all have been a part of this dance we have every four years, and no matter their beliefs, at the end of it, they united behind the elected president.
Richard Nixon: My fellow Americans…
Ronald Reagan: To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion.
Joe Biden: We come together as one nation, under God, indivisible.
Barack Obama: America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears.
Donald Trump: Every four years we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power…
Joe Biden: … as we have for more than two centuries.
BRIGGS: For a history of presidential inaugurations, you can look at our show notes where we’ll link to my article on past inaugural addresses. It highlights some wise words leaders used to unite us in troubled times. Amy McKeever’s piece on fraught presidential transitions is another great read.
You can also see Nina Berman and David Guttenfelder’s photography in articles about President Biden’s Inauguration and what the nation’s capital looked like days before the ceremony. And we’ll also have a link to Louie Palu’s video of the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
And make sure to subscribe to Overheard and listen to our episode last season where I talked with photographer Andrea Bruce about the meaning of democracy.
That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
GWIN: Overheard’s Inauguration episode was produced by Jacob Pinter, who also played the role of George Washington. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode. Special thanks to Brian Gutierrez who played Abraham Lincoln. Our fact-checker is Julie Beer. Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak. Ted Woods sound designed and engineered this episode. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
Thanks to the White House, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library for the archival tape in this episode. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
I’m Peter Gwin. And I’m Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see y’all soon.
You can see Nina Berman and David Guttenfelder’s photography in articles about the first “virtual” inauguration, the celebration that followed and what the nation’s capital looked like days before the ceremony. And check out Louie Palu’s video of the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol. For more of their photography, you can follow Louie Palu, Nina Berman and David Guttenfelder on instagram.
You can also listen to our interview with photographer Andrea Bruce for a reflection on what democracy means and explore dispatches from her project, Our Democracy.
And for paid subscribers:
Read Amy Briggs’s article on past inaugural addresses, which highlights some wise words leaders used to unite us in troubled times. And learn about fraught presidential transitions in our nation’s history.