Critic's Notebook: At Joe Biden's Inauguration, Glimmers of Light Drive Out Trumpian Darkness

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Kamala Harris and a stunning poem from Amanda Gorman were the main attractions, but even Biden's platitude-heavy speech was refreshing after years of Trumpian solipsism and stupidity.

How to put this nicely?

Donald Trump was an optics president.

He was not a words president.

Elevated in the popular imagination by Pizza Hut commercials, Home Alone 2 cameos and the soulless programming generosity of Jeff Zucker, Trump was obsessed with the perception of large hands, with fabricated crowd sizes and with the idea of militaristic parades.

Trump valued propaganda with as few accompanying words as possible — or at least as few accompanying scripted words as possible. Give the guy a podium and room to vamp, and he could stir a crowd into a mob. But optics are still the basis for which some conservatives express their refusal to believe Joe Biden won the election. "Did you see the size of his rallies compared to Trump's rallies?" "Do you see the size of his Twitter following compared to the size of Trump's Twitter following?"

For four years, optics were the same as perception, perception was the same as reality, and reality was a hastily cobbled together assortment of "alternative facts."

And, at least to some degree, the reframing of the nuanced American narrative as a picture book succeeded. I vaguely remember that Trump's inaugural address skipped over reconciliation and went straight to dystopian nightmare, but I recall no words or phrases from his speech. What I remember is Dancing With the Stars contestant Sean Spicer lying about pictures of the inaugural crowd. The inauguration of Donald Trump was not a celebration of unity, but rather a referendum on our willing suspension of disbelief.

There will be no contentious debates about Joe Biden's inaugural crowd, no side-by-side comparisons of aerial photographs accompanied by verifiably false claims in the press room. This was pretty clearly the smallest inaugural crowd in recent memory, and there are optics in that as well; the uninhabited stretches of the D.C. Mall, filled only with flags rippling in a chilly January breeze, and the relative absence of people were a simultaneous reminder of the pandemic that has claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans and of the terrifying domestic terror attack on the Capitol two weeks ago — the climax and symbolic conclusion of the Trump presidency.

Trump's partially filled crowd became the opening salvo of a science-fiction presidency at war with the truth. Joe Biden's absence of crowd will perhaps be the opening salvo of a presidency acknowledging reality. We'll see.

The Biden inaugural team valued optics of a different sort, especially when it came to the selection of performers at the Wednesday morning ceremony. Lady Gaga wore what looked like a giant mockingjay pin on her lapel that practically provided accompaniment to an excellent rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Jennifer Lopez sang Woody Guthrie's progressive anthem "This Land Is Your Land" bedecked in bling Guthrie surely would have raised an eyebrow at, and punctuating her performance first with Spanish and then with the exhortation "Let's get loud." But then Biden had Garth Brooks, resolutely apolitical in a traditionally red cultural sphere, singing "Amazing Grace" in blue jeans.

The optics said, over and over again, "We're trying to bring America together." Yet they just as frequently reminded us of how nightmarish the past month, year, four years have been for some people.

Apologies if you've thought the past four years have been tubs of fun. There was very little in this inaugural day for you.

Oh, and speaking one last time of optics, perhaps Trump got the final word by petulantly refusing to attend his successor's inauguration. There have been many elections in American history in which the ideological pendulum swung wildly from one extreme to another. But past losers have generally found a way to do the bare minimum and show up at the next inauguration, recognizing that continuity of power is a matter of optics as well. Trump, instead, snuck away in the wee hours of the morning.

But more than images — and I'm a TV critic, so I try to pay attention to images — President Biden's inauguration was like a welcome back party for "words," and his supporters embraced them like one of those heartwarming viral videos of a devoted dog pouncing on a beloved owner returning after time overseas in military service. We climbed over ourselves to devour those words like Roberto Benigni running to the stage for an Oscar (or like I'm gonna hit the crab legs line at a Las Vegas buffet if such a thing ever exists again).

Hamlet's declaration that he was reading "Words, words, words" suggested the occasional hollowness of rhetoric, but even hollow words can be manna if you've been in an intellectual desert.

Maligned by pernicious adversaries as too feeble to read a brief speech just months ago, President Biden delivered a well-written address that was full of platitudes — he's going to be the president for ALL Americans, in case you were unsure — and equally laden with alliteration, symbolism and references to Saint Augustine. I saw people celebrate the return of complete and complex sentences to presidential compositions, but that's an understatement. This was a casually eloquent address.

Of course, Biden's speech was immediately upstaged by the much less casual and much more eloquent recitation from 22-year-old inaugural poet Amanda Gorman. Reciting her poem "The Hill We Climb" to the small-but-appreciative crowd, Gorman gave a dazzling display of language that was simultaneously awash in flourishes and wordplay and heavily saturated in both ideology and hope. In this moment, more than a few people needed Gorman's words, "There is always light / If only we're brave enough to see it / If only we're brave enough to be it." I don't know if Gorman is a Leonard Cohen fan, but I'm betting more than a few listeners considered the Canadian singer's "Anthem" with its lyrics, "There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in." The ability to spot the light, however weakly it sometimes shines or however hard it sometimes is to see, constitutes idealism — perhaps American idealism.

Could Joe Biden issue an executive order allowing us to set aside 10 minutes every week to listen to a recitation from Amanda Gorman?

Gorman was the star of the inauguration, and second billing would probably go to Kamala Harris, installed as our first female vice president, our first vice president of color, our first vice president accompanied onstage by her stylish Jewish step kids. The "firsts" associated with Wednesday's ceremonies mostly related to Harris, even if Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she of more than a few "firsts" herself, managed to mispronounce "Kamala" as part of the oath of office. You'd almost think Biden was aware of the contrast he was setting in being inaugurated as president but letting other people take the spotlight.

So there were still ample revealing optics in the midst of this transition back to traditional presidential rhetoric.

And what will it mean if the rhetoric doesn't translate into action and deeds?

That's a conversation for the next four years.