“Good evening, America, proud to be here in cold Washington D.C.,” Bruce Springsteen said Wednesday night, kicking off the Celebrating America apogee of today’s unprecedented inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
If you had any questions about the tone the concert special was going to aim for, the Boss’ choice of an acoustic rendition of his hymn-themed “Land of Hope and Dreams” should have provided the answer. The Ricky Kirshner- and Glenn Weiss-produced event was more a steady commemoration than a celebration for a wounded nation and body politic.
You can put all the Black Puma, Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard, DJ Cassidy, Ozuna and Luis Fonsi, Katy Perry, Foo Fighters, prerecorded Justin Timberlake, Ant Clemons and Demi Lovato you like on-screen, and please do. However, the core of tonight was always to be found in Springsteen’s lyric of “faith will be rewarded.”
Perhaps they are words we need to put on the currency in 2021, along with Harriet Tubman’s visage.
Hosted by Tom Hanks, the man that maybe everyone in America likes, the semi-live special was perhaps the most traditional part of an unconventional day except for the oaths that the new POTUS and VPOTUS took on the Capitol steps earlier. Still, as much as Celebrating America was like numerous star-studded inaugural shindigs from past administrations, it was also very different.
Even with a Miami-set Jon Bon Jovi belting out the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and extraordinary “every day heroes” –ordinary Americans taking the spotlight — Celebrating America was also a distanced solemn and restrained affair for a nation hobbled by the Covid-19 pandemic and the jarring violence of the attempted MAGA coup just two weeks ago.
“In the last few weeks, in the last few years, we’ve witnessed deep divisions and a troubling rancor in our land,” Hanks, clearly cold, stated, surrounded by a National Guard-protected DC that is more fortress than city tonight. “But tonight, we ponder the United States of America, the practice of our democracy, the foundations of our republic, the integrity of our Constitution, the hope and dreams we all share for a more perfect union,” he added, as only a veteran of such Presidential events can credibly.
Showing up in the first half-hour of the 90-minute special, the newly minted President himself was even more blunt, with no trace of the Uncle Fluffy persona he sometimes brings to such occasions. “As I said earlier, we’ve learned again that democracy is precious, and because of you, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said in the temple to the Great Emancipator.
"There are moments in our history when more is asked of us as Americans…we are in one of those moments now," President Biden says at "Celebrating America" concert. "The question is: Are we up to it? Will we meet the moment like our forebearers have?" pic.twitter.com/podvk4h4Gn
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 21, 2021
Vice President Harris was on point too. The first woman and the first person of African-American and South Asian descent to be veep, the now former California senator echoed the President’s sentiment in her own remarks in front of the lights in memorial to the more than 400,000 Americans so far who have died from the coronavirus
“In many ways, this moment embodies our character as a nation. It demonstrates who we are, even in dark times. We not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be.” — Vice President Harris #Inauguration2021 pic.twitter.com/oKSV5t45JH
— Biden Inaugural Committee (@BidenInaugural) January 21, 2021
Democracy may have prevailed over the pre-fascism of Donald Trump as power transferred to the 46th POTUS and 49th VPOTUS. Yet, with crises on every front facing the new administration, tonight was a fittingly low-key finale of the Rise of Biden franchise, a trilogy that began with the hugely successful semi-virtual unconventional Democratic National Convention last summer and continued through Election Day and its Wilmington, DE-centric aftermath. Celebrating America was full of those foot-stompin’ cross-country Zoom sing-a-longs that originated at the four-night DNC and remote testimonials of our better angels.
In fact, tonight’s special had many of the same players from before from the man at the top, his right-hand woman to the Boss. Celebrating America even saw Eva Longoria and Kerry Washington reprise their hosting roles from part of the four-night DNC and the return of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The concert showed some thinking outside the box, too.
There was the Hamilton creator and star reciting a Seamus Heaney poem and having Biden digitally join him to finish the final line. There were selections of the inaugural words of Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan, as spoken with added eloquence by Kareem Abdul-Jabber, Dolores Huerta, the always hearty Brayden Harrington and Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng. There was John Legend singing “Feeling Good” — famous covered by Nina Simone — at night with an empty Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop, a stirring scene reminiscent in some ways of when the EGOT winner performed Simone songs at Sundance a few years back
Otherwise, Celebrating America successfully capped an Inauguration Day that started with the sad scurrying out of town by the boorish (to put it mildly) Trump and then saw one made for TV historical moment after another full of symbols and substance galore. Because, if this subdued search for a greater unity in a fractured union had a defining moment, it wasn’t from the rock stars or songwriters, the closing fireworks or even the colossal tasks facing Biden and Harris.
It was the three elders of the tribe united across party lines and generations aching to see America recover from the damage and destruction of Trump’s term and the forces unleashed anew.
“The fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country,” said George W. Bush in parsed language with his predecessor Bill Clinton and successor Barack Obama by his side in a city that hasn’t been so peaceful in recent weeks.
It’s not the first time the three amigos have been shoulder to shoulder, but today at the WWII Memorial may have been the most vital time they’ve ever come together.
WATCH: Former Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama reflect on what Inauguration Day means to them. pic.twitter.com/OtNDf7uF34
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 21, 2021
“Mr. President, I’m pulling for your success. Your success is our country’s success and God bless you,” Bush said to Biden with words similar to the letter he left Obama in 2009. “You have spoken for us today. Now, you will lead for us. And we’re ready to march with you,” Clinton chimed in. “Joe, I’m proud of you,” said Obama of his former VP.
It was a PSA for the USA, and maybe the calming medicine of a message that we and the world needed to hear.
Or to quote, Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem of earlier today and said by the Vice President too: we will rise.
“Faith will be rewarded.”