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- Insider senior correspondent Dave Levinthal scored an official press pass to cover President Joe Biden’s inauguration live at the US Capitol.
- Getting the final green light to attend the ceremony required a negative COVID-19 test and navigating plenty of tight security.
- The payoff: Witnessing history at one of the most surreal and consequential White House handoffs in American history.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A beat after becoming the United States’ 46th president, Joe Biden stood in the shadow of the US Capitol and declared victory on behalf of Americans. All of them.
“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile,” Biden said. “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
If so, democracy sure as hell earned the moment. Life this month in Washington, DC, has felt equal parts chaotic, anarchic, and authoritarian.
It began with President Donald Trump still spewing lies and refusing to accept the outcome of a free and fair election he lost.
It metastasized into Trump rallying thousands of supporters who felt sufficiently inspired to immediately launch a deadly attack on the US Capitol.
It escalated when 25,000 military troops descended on the nation’s capital.
And it all led to Trump, facing a Senate impeachment trial for inciting an insurrection and all manner of legal peril, bucking more than 150 years of precedent and refusing to attend the peaceful transfer of power between himself and his successor.
All while more than 400,000 Americans are now dead because of a COVID-19 pandemic the nation can’t yet control.
As a reporter assigned to cover Biden’s inauguration ceremony, the short and turbulent path to a literal front-row seat to history provided a poignant and personal metaphor — one both of fear and of hope.
Friday, January 15: ‘Go get ’em!’
Inauguration organizers at the US Capitol confirmed to Darren Samuelsohn, Insider’s Washington Bureau chief, that they had approved our news organization’s request for credentials.
To be precise, they issued us one credential. This would be a dramatically scaled-down, socially distanced ceremony, after all, with attendees numbering in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands and spanning half the National Mall as is customary for this once-every-four-years affair.
Pending a health screening, the Insider reporter would be seated a baseball’s toss away from where Biden would become president.
I could hear the disembodied voice of Frank DeLuca, my history-obsessed 4th grade teacher who challenged me to learn the names of each president, offering an enthusiastic “go get ’em!”. Turning down an opportunity to attend and report on the inauguration of Biden and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to occupy the office, also seemed a bit … journalistically ill-advised.
Or was it?
Monday, January 18: The dreaded nasal swab
Downtown Washington, DC, effectively shut down over the weekend, with numerous National Guard and law enforcement checkpoints ringing a perimeter you could run a half-marathon along.
But at this juncture, health concerns came first: any reporter attending inauguration needed to pass a COVID-19 test at one of two designated screening sites — a Pentagon parking lot in Virginia or the Capitol itself.
I picked the Pentagon. At first, it looked like most any drive-in COVID testing site. Then came the big guys with guns. They firmly, but politely, asked some basic Admiral James Stockdale-esque questions: Who are you? Why are you here?
Their questions answered, I proceeded to a tent where a woman in full PPE checked my congressional press pass, took some information, and administered a nose swab. No matter how long this pandemic lasts, I doubt I’ll ever get used to someone sticking something in my face as the price of covering a political event.
Just before midnight, I received a text message with a link: my COVID-19 test was negative. I could attend the inauguration — if I could get to the Capitol the next morning.
Tuesday, January 19: Playing tourist
Rumors and reports of all sorts of incoming badness swirled hour by hour — people found with weapons, a potential second Capitol attack.
A pre-inauguration email chain among some Capitol Hill and political reporters gave me pause.
Some were considering purchasing bullet-proof vests and shrapnel goggles for inauguration day. Others were concerned about chemical agents and other threats.
Darren and I discussed a variety of contingency plans — everything from bomb threats to civil unrest to what I should do if authorities improperly arrested me.
Out of an abundance of caution, I sent a message to Mark Richards, owner of Full Metal Jacket in Virginia, inquiring about personal protective gear. He quickly responded and detailed his wares for wary journalists: gas masks, ballistic helmets, plates that can stop a bullet from a high-powered rifle.
But no dice: Congressional officials told news reporters that they would be denied entry to the inauguration if they wore a protective vest or other tactical gear. My MacGyver impulse purchase on Insider’s dime? I’d have to wait for some other crisis.
Reporters had a window of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday to pick up their credentials for Wednesday’s inauguration — inside a Senate office building adjacent to the Capitol. I hadn’t been to the Capitol complex since the January 6 insurrection, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I made the short drive from my home in Northeast Washington and parked on a street about 1 ½ miles short of the Capitol. Three distinct layers of security fortified the Capitol: initial checkpoints, an outer perimeter ringed by a razor-wire-topped fence, and an inner fenced perimeter patrolled by hundreds of armed troops and law enforcement officials. As I walked the labyrinth, nine different people stopped to check my ID or conduct a security screening.
Finally inside the Russell Senate Office Building, I picked up my inauguration credentials, drama-free. But not wanting to waste the effort of getting there, I navigated through the network of Capitol complex tunnels to the Capitol itself for an impromptu self-tour.
What I saw was sobering. Scars of the January 6th attack remained. The shattered glass. The broken doors. A display covered with wooden boards.
Flanked by three aides, now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walked down a marble corridor slowly and silently, having announced the hour earlier that he in part blamed Trump for the attack on the Capitol.
Then I entered the Rotunda — the interior of the Capitol’s dome. It’s one of those rare places in the United States, natural or man-made, that inspires awe on your first or your 50th visit.
For a minute, I stood there alone. Sunlight poured through the dome’s every window. A huge American flag hung on the rounded wall. Statues of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. towered 10 feet high.
Wednesday, January 20: Front-row seat to history
The night before, my young son opened my hand as I kissed him goodnight and pressed one of his plastic green Army men into it.
“He’ll protect you tomorrow.”
My alarm sounded at 4 a.m. I ate some breakfast, read a bit, filed a couple of stories. Around 6 a.m., I grabbed my computer bag filled with the necessities of reporting outside in winter — long coat, grippy gloves, a box of pens, several notebooks, extra batteries, and lots of granola bars — and headed out. My new N95 mask felt sufficiently tight and uncomfortable.
On any pre-pandemic workday, vehicles would jam North Capitol Street as thousands of commuters jockey for position. On any past Inauguration Day, tens of thousands of revelers would have packed its sidewalks, fortified with caffeine and anticipation for a singularly American event that connects the nation to its very roots, when George Washington in 1789 stood upon a balcony in the then-capital city of New York to become the United States’ first president.
There would have also been noise, noise, noise, noise, because Washington, DC, is a city of noise. Most is lively: Horns honking, demonstrators demonstrating, street preachers preaching. Politicians, lobbyists, journalists — everyone here always has something to say.
Of late, however, the noise has grown darker: the hateful tweets, the racial epitaphs, shouts of rebellion, even calls to kill.
At the Capitol today, both yielded.
No matter that Trump himself ghosted the ceremony. From where I sat in the front row, I could see some of the now-former president’s most strident supporters — Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas among them — chatting with members of a crowd dominated by Democrats.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another Trump loyalist, sat the obligatory six feet away from Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser, one of Trump’s chief detractors.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who led the joint congressional committee charged with organizing the inaugural ceremony itself, encouraged all Americans to unify behind a desire to build, to grow, and to overcome shared challenges — be it the pandemic or assault on the republic.
“Once again, we renew our commitment to our determined democracy, forging a more perfect union,” Blunt told those gathered. “The United States can only fulfill its promise, and set an example for others, if we are always working to be better than we have been.”
After Biden took his oath of office from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts — an appointee of President George W. Bush, who along with presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — the new president approached the lectern to speak. The city seemed to fall still. Even the wind-blown snow flurries calmed as if in anticipation of what he’d say.
“Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” Biden said. “It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”