A Capital Under Siege

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A presidential inauguration in the United States is usually a celebration of democracy.

Hundreds of thousands of people descend on Washington to watch a newly elected president take the oath of office. A departing president signals his respect for the country by celebrating the new one, even when that departing president is disappointed by the election’s outcome — as was the case with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and others.

“I grew up in the Washington area, and inaugurations have always been a time of hope and fresh beginnings regardless of party,” Peter Baker, The Times’s chief White House correspondent, told me.

But when American democracy is under siege, an inauguration can have a very different feel. That was true in 1945, when the U.S. was fighting fascism in World War II, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration was a spartan affair. It was true in 1861, when the country was on the verge of war and Abraham Lincoln was the target of an assassination plot. It was true again four years later, when smallpox was raging and the Civil War was nearing its end.

And it will be true today — when mismanagement has left the U.S. coping with the world’s worst Covid-19 toll and when law enforcement agencies are warning of potential violence by President Trump’s supporters.

The day will still be a triumph of democracy in the most important way: A defeated president’s attempt to overturn a fair election has failed, as has a violent attack on Congress by his supporters. The election’s winner, Joe Biden, will be sworn in as president around noon Eastern, just after the new vice president, Kamala Harris.

Nonetheless, American democracy is under siege. Washington resembles an armed encampment, with visitors barred from many places, fences surrounding the National Mall and troops lining the streets. Trump will not attend the event, and many of his supporters believe his false claims.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Peter, who has covered every White House since Clinton’s and who first covered an inauguration as a junior reporter in 1985, the start of Ronald Reagan’s second term. “It’s surreal to see our city become such an armed camp. It reminds me of Baghdad or Kabul back when I covered those wars, but I never imagined we would see it quite this way in Washington.”

Here’s how to watch today’s inauguration. Coverage will begin around 10 a.m. Eastern.

Below, we briefly look back at the three inaugurations most similar to today’s — from 1945, 1865 and 1861.

Several Southern states seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election, and one newspaper described fears that “armed bands” would try to thwart his inauguration. A plot to kill Lincoln forced him to sneak into Washington in the early morning.

On Inauguration Day, cavalry members flanked Lincoln’s procession, soldiers blocked streets and roof-mounted snipers eyed the crowd. The first sentence on the front page of the next day’s New York Times: “The day to which all have looked with so much anxiety and interest has come and passed. ABRAHAM LINCOLN has been inaugurated, and ‘all’s well.’”

Washington was a grim wartime city for Lincoln’s second inauguration, having endured waves of smallpox and torrential recent rains. The crowd that day stood in mud “almost knee deep.” Lincoln rode in an open carriage, with a military escort of both Black and white troops.

A Times account — by the poet Walt Whitman — noted that as the president spoke, “a curious little white cloud, the only one in that part of the sky, appeared like a hovering bird, right over him.”

The actor John Wilkes Booth, soon to become Lincoln’s assassin, was in the crowd that day.

Security concerns and wartime austerity turned Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration into “the simplest inauguration on record” with “the smallest ever” crowd, The Times wrote.

The public portions of the event lasted just 15 minutes, partly because Roosevelt was ailing. He trembled as he stood on the South Portico of the White House to deliver a brief address. Less than three months later, he would die of a cerebral hemorrhage. By the end of that summer, the U.S. had won the wars in both Europe and Asia.

  • The Senate began confirmation hearings for five of Biden’s cabinet nominees. But delays mean he will probably become the first president in decades to take office without his national security team in place.

  • Kamala Harris will swear in three new Democratic senators — Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California — after she becomes vice president, giving Democrats narrow control of the Senate.

  • Biden will propose an immigration bill today that would give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship and let “Dreamers” apply for permanent residency.

  • The National Guard removed two troops from inauguration service because of possible links to right-wing extremist movements.

  • These photos show Biden’s long road to the presidency.

  • Can Biden take his Peloton with him to the White House? Yes, cybersecurity experts say, but the bike may need some adjustments.

A Morning Read: In one of the great wins in India’s cricketing history, a young squad without its big-ticket stars — and coping with injuries and racist abuse — defeated a confident Australia on its own turf.

From Opinion: Senate Democrats should abolish the filibuster to make progress on climate change, civil rights and more, Adam Jentleson argues.

Lives Lived: As the only child of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Mary Catherine Bateson was once one of the most famous babies in America. She grew up to become a polymathic scholar, and her 1989 book about the stop-and-start nature of women’s lives became a classic. Bateson died at 81.

Some famous paintings are stolen more than once. Since 1988, for example, thieves have stolen a Frans Hals painting valued at more than $10 million from a small Dutch museum three times, most recently in August.

Selling these paintings on the open market is impossible. So why do thieves covet them? Having been stolen before, the works have a track record that shows people are still willing to pay a lot of money for them — either on the black market or through ransom.

Thieves sometimes sell stolen masterpieces to criminals, who in turn might use them as leverage to reduce sentences for other crimes, The Art Newspaper reports. And in the case of the Hals painting, an insurance company and the Dutch authorities once paid a ransom fee of more than $250,000. Lately, though, authorities and insurers have become reluctant to pay up, believing they’re encouraging future thefts.

Find out more about the fascinating history of the paintings thieves repeatedly steal.

Chickpeas and pasta come together in this vegan main.

Amanda Gorman, 22, the youngest inaugural poet, will read a work she finished after the riot at the Capitol. She discussed the writing process here.

The late-night hosts reflected on Trump’s final full day as president.

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was backfill. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Smiles (five letters).

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. The Times’s website debuted 25 years ago this week. “With its entry on the Web,” an article at the time noted, “The Times is hoping to become a primary information provider in the computer age.”

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