Throughout his campaign, Trump promised much for Inauguration Day, saying — over and over and over — that after Jan. 20, 2017, everything was going to be very different. That assertion — a boast, a battle cry, a promise, a warning — permeated everything on Friday, ubiquitous as the weather. Rain was forecast; 40 percent in the morning, rising to 80 percent by the time of the swearing-in.
No backpacks were allowed in the seating area. At first, they said no umbrellas, too, but the Park Service relented enough to permit the little collapsible kind. But with so much promised, the only satisfactory beginning would have been for Trump to act out the first scene in The Young Pope, raising his arms to the sky and commanding the sun to appear.
In the office building of the House of Representatives on Thursday night, I excused myself to find the bathroom. Above the sink, a printed sign read “DO NOT DRINK THE WATER.” I wondered why and quickly discovered another sign explaining that tests had identified elevated lead levels. It is an old stately building for sure, but this is the capital of the country. Shouldn’t the water be potable?
I checked out the website for Trump International Hotel. Much is devoted to the grandeur and size of the restored post office building. Indeed, it “offers the largest luxury ballroom, the largest presidential suite, and Trump signature programs for those bold enough to Think Big.” To the left of the page, a motto is emblazoned: “NEVER SETTLE.” The website also has a call to action: “Join the Trump Lifestyle.” It explains a lot. I realized I had made the mistake of thinking about the presidential election in political terms; I should have been thinking about it as a choice of lifestyle.
On Friday morning, I made my way to my seat in front of the Capitol. The ceremony was long but crisp. The dignitaries were announced as they entered and walked to their seats. There was a man next to me who had been waiting for the day for a long time. He referred to himself in the third person as the Wiz and offered commentary on the proceedings.
As New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was speaking, a rumble began deep in the back of the crowd, way back, all the way back to the Washington Monument, several hundred thousand people back, but rolling forward, picking up steam, louder and louder as it gets closer until I felt like I was at a stadium and it was time to stand up and do the wave. Then it broke over me, and it was one word, one big long word: “Booooooooo.” The crowd was booing Schumer. The Wiz says, “That’s a Bronx cheer,” he laughed, delighted. “Thats what a million people booing sounds like.”
Then Hillary Clinton came down the stairs with Bill at her side. Bill lit up with the crowd, as she smiled tightly. The military band played march music as the luminaries came down the steps. “She is wearing white,” says the Wiz, referring to Hillary. “Isn’t that ironic?”
They used to say that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. Not on this stage. The Trump contingent was so groomed and buffed that their faces shone. When Trump’s wife, Melania, came down the steps in a light-blue outfit, a woman behind me cried, “You make America beautiful again.”
It was not as cold as other inaugurations have been, but most everyone was wearing a down coat or winter jacket. In the front, you can tell who thought they were important; they were the folks who did not wear coats. No coats for Trump or Pence; they knew they’d be on camera, and they wanted to look vigorous and youthful, not bundled up against the weather like old men.
Last night I had seen Trump on TV. He said he didn’t care if it rained. In fact, it would be good because then he could prove to Americans that his hair was real. If it got wet, he might look like a mess but it’d be clear that his hair was real.
The sky was gray and somber, but as of 11 o’clock, there had been no rain. At 11:11, my seat mates said, “The sun is trying to come out.” I looked up, and they were right. You could see a tepid sun behind wafting clouds. It looked for a minute like Trump might bring the sun to this occasion, but then clouds knotted up and the sky returned to brooding.
Pence was sworn in at 11:54. He wandered the stage shaking hands and then stopped in front of Trump for a manly grip. It was 11:57. I felt a drop. Damn. Another. They announced Justice Roberts would swear in Trump. Another drop. Trump stepped forward. It started to rain. Not a deluge, but the crowd rustled and put on hoods and hats. A woman in front of me put her newspaper on her head, perhaps a reminder of the role of journalism in this coming world.
After Trump’s fiery speech, there was a benediction. The second speaker stepped to the podium and led with the line, “In the Bible, it is said that rain is a blessing, and it started to rain when you stepped forward, President Trump; may you be blessed.” It was a good line, and the audience cheered. I am no Bible scholar, but I know that once it rained for such a long time that Noah had to build an arc. I think maybe rain isn’t always a blessing in the Holy Book, but I can’t begrudge a man of faith who knows how to spin.