By Dan Lawton
Part IVKamala Harris’ transition team had planned a grand inauguration parade, complete with marching bands and floats. One of the floats, her press person said, would carry as passengers all of the people of color who had ridden the bus to school with the young Harris when the courts were trying to de-segregate the public schools in California. They weren’t the crew of the PT-109 and this wasn’t 1960, but it would get the point across.
Harris’s people had called the White House and Secret Service again and again, but they were not returning the calls, and the president was ignoring her own calls to the Oval Office. It was customary for the outgoing president to put the president-elect up at Blair House, across the street from the White House, the night before the inauguration. But Trump had ordered Blair House boarded shut and surrounded by U.S. Army troops of the 82nd Airborne Division, citing national security concerns after someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at a window late on New Year’s Eve.
To the new veep-ascendant, it didn’t matter. She had her own private security detail. They would show the Secret Service and White House staff every courtesy during the transition. The media was on her side, the philistines and Neanderthals of Fox News excepted.
No one had ever muscled their way into the White House before. But no one had ever needed to. Every beaten incumbent, however bitter and stubborn, had yielded gracefully to the protocols of the orderly transfer of power, a tradition of which Americans were justly proud. Harris had been in contact with the Joint Chiefs and the D.C. police and the CIA and Trump’s cabinet, all of whom had resigned.
Get ready, ‘cuz here I come, she thought, playing the chorus of the old Temptations song in her head as she tried on designer pantsuits in a mirror, surrounded by a small coterie of fashion consultants, tailors, and sycophantic weasels in her suite at the Hay Adams Hotel, just across the street from the White House. Through the window, she tried to catch a glimpse of the White House.
It was invisible.
Overnight, a fleet of immaculate shiny white buses had come trundling into the capital in the dark, endless columns of them rumbling over the Key Bridge, the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, the 14th Street Bridge, and the Memorial Bridge, escorted by Secret Service agents on motorcycles, and then converged on the White House, which they had slowly encircled. The drivers had carefully parked just outside the fence marking the perimeter of the White House proper, bumper to bumper, with barely an inch in between. They kept the engines idling, generating a cloud of exhaust which rose above the White House.
The first ring of buses had enclosed all 18.7 acres, plus the Ellipse, the grassy park to the south of the executive mansion. A second procession of buses had then encircled the first ring and parked just outboard of it, forming a fourteen-foot-high double barrier of buses which no protester or outlaw could hope to penetrate without heavy equipment and a private army.
From the air, the double enclosure of buses formed an outline that looked like an upturned fist with a raised rectangular middle finger. Troops and cops in full body armor and camouflage had flooded the streets for two square miles around the Capitol. They were beating protesters, loading them into paddy wagons, shooting pepper balls and tear gas and rubber bullets in every direction. Diaphanous clouds of tear gas were all over the place.
The smell of tear gas wafted up into Harris’ suite. Everybody started dabbing their eyes. A junior aide rushed into the bathroom and noisily threw up in the toilet without shutting the door first.
The Secret Service was providing security and intelligence as usual but otherwise seemed to have fallen into a state of temporary paralysis. The supervisors were said to have contingency plans in place for the big day. No one told the public what they were.
Three thousand miles away in California, John Ducey got ready for bed. What if Trump won't go, he wondered. He recalled that, in Venezuela in 2019, there had been an electoral freak show featuring a competing pair of presidential inaugurations, each featuring a man who solemnly insisted he had been elected president. Venezuela was a failed state, of course, a basket case even by banana republic standards. John turned out the light and drifted off to sleep.
On January 20, 2021, at 7:30 a.m., Kamala Harris made her way toward the east front of the Capitol building. A big phalanx of private security guards and Capitol Police officers surrounded her and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, who looked pretty presidential himself. Two days earlier, Trump had ordered the Secret Service to arrest her. But the agents refused to carry out the order. Trump had gone batshit over that.
Over the heads of the men ahead of her, Kamala Harris caught a glimpse of the grand view beyond the glass -- the National Mall, the spire of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Potomac River, all of it laid out in 1791 by the French military engineer Pierre L’Enfant. Across the Potomac, barely visible, were the white columns of the Custis-Lee Mansion in Arlington National Cemetery, the onetime home of the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Harris had learned about the mansion in the sixth grade.
After the Civil War started in 1861, the federal government had turned the place into a barracks for Union Army troops. After the war, she remembered, the government had made the general sue to get it back. Harris had read that Lee once ordered two of his own slaves whipped after they had tried to escape.
Who knew how many black and white Americans had died and suffered horribly because of the battlefield brilliance of Lee, America's most glorified traitor?
Harris allowed herself a rare moment of self-congratulation.
Screw you, Robert E. Lee, she thought. How do you like me now?
There had been no coffee at Blair House, of course. Harris had had a short phone call with Trump late last night. His utterances which had not been incomprehensible grunts and screeches had been vague. Trump had calmed down a little just before hanging up on her and dropped his voice down to just above a whisper.
“See you at the inauguration, Kamala,” Trump croaked into Harris’s ear. “I’ll be there.”
Trump sounded hoarse, a little slurry, like he had been up all night, shouting at anyone who would listen, working the phones between obsessively watching TV screens, wolfing down fast food.
But this morning, there was no sign of Donald Trump at the Capitol or the White House.
He had exhausted every legal tactic, tweeted nonsense around the clock, fired all his lawyers and hired new ones. But now, maybe he was going gently after all.
This is happening, Harris thought. Ruffles and flourishes coming up. She heard the brass section of the Marine Corps band warming up outside.
To Harris’s right, a pair of Capitol Police men opened a door and ushered her into the secret office which lay behind it.
The room was one of the best-kept secrets in the Capitol. The modest door, which bore no sign, made it look like a janitor’s closet. But when you walked in there were high ceilings, grand frescoes, the best work of the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. A president got to see it once in a lifetime, at his first inauguration. Or her first.
A set of papers bearing the Great Seal of the United States lay on a handsome walnut desk.
Harris signed them quickly. The agents surrounding the table all stood at attention, taut, ready to escort her outside to be sworn in as America's first black woman president. John Roberts and Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney and the rest of them were out there in the crisp January air in their overcoats and hats and scarves.
In Long Beach, it would be the eighteenth U.S. presidential inauguration John Ducey had watched on live TV. He and his parents had huddled around a radio to listen to FDR being sworn in in 1940 and 1944, before his little family owned a TV. John dearly loved the pageantry of presidential inaugurations, the patriotic music and soldiers and sailors and Marines in their perfect uniforms and the masses of flags and the VIPs sitting onstage to watch the new president ushered into office.
But this was going to be the best one yet.
It's still the greatest country in the world, John thought. A black woman.
He turned on the TV and settled in to his old leather armchair.
Right away, he was confused. The networks were displaying split screens today.
On the left side of the screen, Donald Trump stood in a black overcoat, a splash of red tie showing, with his right hand in the air and his left hand on a Bible. He was at his golf club in Virginia, on a big round platform. The platform sat atop the grand water sculpture that overlooked the golf course and the Potomac River. Ordinarily the water sculpture space was reserved for weddings. Today it would be the site of what Donald Trump was calling his second inaugural.
Trump had had trouble finding a respectable federal judge to administer the oath to him. But, at the last minute, the Senate rushed through the confirmation of his most recent nominee to the federal bench. It was John Yoo, a law professor from Berkeley. His biggest career achievement had been writing torture memos for the CIA during the early 2000s. Yoo had just been sworn in himself yesterday, with a beaming Dick Cheney holding the Bible as Yoo took the oath.
Kamala Harris's words resonated a mile away, down the National Mall. It was carpeted with 1.9 million people, the largest crowd ever at a presidential inauguration, giddy Americans of all races and ages and both sexes.
"I, Kamala Harris," she said.
"I, Donald Trump," said Donald Trump, thirty miles away. His words echoed too, out across his verdant fairways and greens, all the way down to the river's edge.
"Venezuela," John Ducey said to himself.
Then he turned it off and went to go put on his jacket and get in the car and drive over to campus and get his three miles in.
➽ Dan Lawton is a lawyer and writer in California.