Before Joe Biden's inauguration, a look at how the political event has developed into a cultural touchstone over the years

Joe Biden’s inauguration will feature Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake and Jon Bon Jovi — but remotely. The transfer of presidential power in the US has always been a signature political event. However, Biden's inauguration will be different by necessity, in an age of illness and threats.

The New York Times January 14, 2021 10:25:20 IST
Before Joe Biden's inauguration, a look at how the political event has developed into a cultural touchstone over the years

So many people thronged President Andrew Jackson’s inaugural reception that he was said to have escaped the White House through a window. President John F Kennedy enlisted a Rat Pack friend, Frank Sinatra, to arrange the entertainment when he took office. And, well, the Obamas danced to Beyoncé.

The transfer of presidential power in the United States has always been a signature political event, but over the centuries it has developed into a major cultural touchstone as well — a swirl of parades, parties and performances shedding light every four years on the nation’s culture, the tastes of its leaders and the images they seek to project.

But with the coronavirus pandemic entering a deadlier phase, and Washington on edge after the riot at the Capitol and warnings of yet more security threats, the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden will be different by necessity. It will join a long line of national events — big sports games, the Democratic National Convention, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and New Year’s Eve in Times Square — that have been forced to scale down and adapt to a socially distant, remote world.

On Wednesday, Biden’s inaugural committee announced that it would hold a prime-time television event on 20 January featuring celebrities including Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake and Jon Bon Jovi that aims to “showcase the American people’s resilience, heroism, and unified commitment to coming together as a nation to heal and rebuild.”

Before Joe Bidens inauguration a look at how the political event has developed into a cultural touchstone over the years

Tom Hanks and Justin Timberlake among attendees of Joe Biden's inauguration. Images from Twitter

With crowds urged to stay home so as not to spread the virus even before a violent mob had tried to block the certification of the election, Biden’s inauguration promises to take on a different look, tone and feel from those of his predecessors.

“All inaugural activities follow a pretty standard series of events,” said Lina Mann, a historian at the White House Historical Association. “You have the parade, you have being at the Capitol, you have the speeches, you have oaths, and then, of course, you have inaugural balls. Those have been standard for over 200 years. This will definitely look a lot different than that.”

So, as the country prepares to usher in the Biden era with a series of atypical inaugural events conceived to meet the dire needs of the day, here is a look at how politics has crossed with culture at some of the history-making inaugural moments of the past.

From Dolley Madison to Teddy Roosevelt

It was the glittering ball that Dolley Madison held in 1809 at the inauguration of her husband, James — the first inaugural ball held in the new capital, Washington — that helped set the standard for making inaugurations into social events.

Two decades later, Jackson allowed an estimated 20,000 people to attend a public reception tied to his inauguration. That turned out to be a few too many attendees, prompting his reported escape through a White House window.

Throngs also marred the ball that President Ulysses S Grant had reluctantly agreed to hold in 1869. A reporter for The New York Times filed a postscript to his article about the chaos and the crowds at “2 o’clock a.m.” It opened: “The scene at the ball now baffles all description.”

At President Theodore Roosevelt’s second inauguration, the parade playlist featured 'There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,' and among the marchers were cowboys; Native Americans, including Geronimo; delegations from Puerto Rico and the Philippines; and Harvard undergrads. “If there was any considerable type of American life not represented in the three hours and a half of effervescent enthusiasm that boiled its way up the avenue,” The Times wrote, “it is not easily remembered.”

JFK and Reagan Enlist Star Power

Kennedy, was able to enlist an A-lister to produce his inaugural concert and a gala: Sinatra.

Mann, the historian, said that she viewed the entertainment at Kennedy’s inauguration — featuring Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Sidney Poitier, Ethel Merman, Harry Belafonte and other huge stars — as a “big moment” that would set the stage for the type of glamorous, multipart inaugural blowouts American have come to expect.

Despite a blizzard that disrupted the festivities, one contemporary report described the gala as “perhaps one of the most stunning assemblies of theatrical talent ever brought together through a single show.”

Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, found himself attending no fewer than eight balls, rubbing shoulders with stars like Charlton Heston, as Tony Bennett, Lou Rawls and Ray Charles performed.

“The aura of big money was everywhere,” The Times wrote. “Expensive gowns by James Galanos, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, unprecedented $100 tickets to dance to the music of Count Basie and other big bands.”

A Clinton Megaconcert

In the years that followed, most presidents held some type of inaugural concert and leaned on performers to add layers of musical symbolism to their inaugurations. President Bill Clinton’s team took things to a level that recalled the fanfare of the Kennedy and Reagan celebrations.

In 1993, the Clinton team deployed the likes of Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Kathleen Battle, Kenny G. and Ray Charles for a megaconcert at the Lincoln Memorial which, critic Jon Pareles wrote in The Times, “promised unity through crossover.”

With Bush, Performing Grows Political

If the 2001 events honouring the inauguration of President George W Bush had somewhat less star power — The Times described the feel as “almost anti-Hollywood” — they still featured pop superstars and country singers including Ricky Martin and Jessica Simpson.

And, in a taste of things to come, the question of whether or not to perform was increasingly seen as a political decision.

“This is a very partisan act,” Robi Draco Rosa, a friend of Martin and the writer of hit songs like 'Livin’ la Vida Loca,' said at the time. “This is a betrayal of everything that every Puerto Rican should stand for.”

Obama Leans on Music as He Breaks Barriers

Before Joe Bidens inauguration a look at how the political event has developed into a cultural touchstone over the years

Beyonce, left, sings 'At Last,' as Barack Obama and Michelle Obama have their first dance at an inaugural ball in Washington in 2009. Inaugurations have long mirrored the nation’s cultural life. President-elect Joe Biden’s will feature Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake and Jon Bon Jovi — remotely, in an age of illness and threats. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

President Barack Obama attended 10 inaugural balls in 2009, but one stood out: the Neighborhood Ball. “Michelle was a chocolate-brown vision in her flowing white gown, and at our first stop I took her in my arms and spun her around and whispered silly things in her ear as we danced to a sublime rendition of ‘At Last’ sung by Beyoncé,” he wrote in his recently released memoir, A Promised Land.

It was another star-studded inaugural. Aretha Franklin sang 'My Country, ’Tis of Thee' at the swearing-in ceremony. Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Kanye West all had parts to play in the events, too.

“Mr Obama’s inaugural events, which strove to involve everyone, were suffused with African-American soul like the rest of American pop culture,” Pareles wrote in The Times.

Some Artists Rebuff Trump, Others Draw Scorn

In the run-up to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the news centred as much on the stars who decided not to perform as those who agreed to.

Elton John turned down Trump’s invitation to play at his inauguration. Andrea Bocelli, who had been rumoured to perform, ended up not appearing as the inaugural team struggled to book performers. The Rockettes participated, but only after becoming engulfed in controversy when a dancer complained that she was being forced to perform.

In the end, the inaugural featured some big names including Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down and Lee Greenwood, some of whom participated in a “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration.” Critic Jon Caramanica wrote in The Times that it “veered between jingoism and vaudevillian fluff and largely ignored the contribution of African-Americans to popular music (which is to say, almost all of popular music).”

Now Biden, a man who has wanted to be president for decades, is preparing to write his own entry into inaugural history. His version will lack the exuberant parades and glittering indoor balls of past celebrations. But the task before him is as challenging as ever: to unify, and entertain, a jittery, divided American public.

Matt Stevens c.2021 The New York Times Company.

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