FDR's 1944 Inaugural, held at the White House. Credit: Library of Congress

Inauguration Day is a great American tradition but proceeding with a swearing-in at the Capitol is a mistake, not because Joe Biden and the public won’t be safe but because it’s impossible to have a ceremony that makes sense.

Even before the election, this year’s inauguration was going to be a mess. The pandemic meant that a large gathering would be foolhardy even if masked, sanitized, and held outside. Transmission rates outside may be low, but cramming observers into Washington’s public transit, hotels, train stations, and airports would have been a super spreader event. Even if the inaugural balls were canceled, you still would have had too many people descending on D.C.

The Capitol attack–and the weeks of lying and court challenges that preceded it–make it impossible to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power with a traditional inaugural on the Capitol steps. It’s not a peaceful transfer of power.  Only tear gas and reinforcements, and luck put down the insurrection. We can’t celebrate what didn’t happen.

I’m of the don’t-cave-to-terrorists school, but canceling the Capitol ceremony and replacing it with something else isn’t appeasing the MAGA mob. The seditionists wanted four more years of Donald Trump. They won’t get it. Biden will take office, and he will be sworn in. The terrorists lost.

But just as it would be inappropriate to throw a black-tie ball this year, an outdoor ceremony at the Capitol, days after the American Carnage there, feels wrong. Biden could say a few words on Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House gates, take the oath from John Roberts, walk in and get to work. 

It would be more befitting of the moment–the urgency to get vaccinations in arms and convicted terrorists in jail. The image of Biden going right to the Oval, perhaps followed by a camera, verite style, seems more appropriate to the solemnity of this January.

Not all swearing ins have been huge affairs. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1945 oath of office, his last, was held on the White House’s South Portico. Due to wartime austerity, there was no big parade and celebration at the Capitol. It’s the shortest inaugural address on record. “Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief,” FDR said. It was the right thing to do.

Biden can do the same by canceling the Capitol events, sending many of the troops home, and doing a simple swearing-in in front of the White House. (He shouldn’t go in until he is the president.) Keep the scheduled visit to Arlington National Cemetery the next day with the Obamas, Clintons, and Bushes. 

In a better world, the sun would be shining on the 20th instead of the expected clouds. The historical elevation of the first woman, first Black woman, first South Asian woman would be getting its appropriate applause. In a better world, Trump would have conceded, done a self-serving victory lap about the vaccine, and left in peace. In a better world, it would be a normal inauguration. But it’s not a better world. Even scaled back, we shouldn’t try to make this inauguration a pale facsimile of the usual grand spectacle. We can return to the parades and fun in 2024, the Lord willing.

The original version of this story said FDR was sworn in at the White House in 1944. It was 1945. 

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.