This time was different

As incoming President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took their oaths of office on Wednesday on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, veteran PEOPLE correspondent Alexandra Rockey Fleming watched from just feet away, among the gathered lawmakers and other guests.

Below, she describes what she saw while reporting on this unprecedented inauguration for the magazine.

Unusual as anything else about the day, Wednesday's Inauguration Day was actually as nearly as perfect as any other, first rattling with anticipation and then sighing with relief.

Okay, yes, there were no bleachers packed with effusive fans. No promenade down Pennsylvania Avenue. No black-tie ball where the new first couple swayed cheek to cheek.

There were, instead, bridge and road closures and rings and rings of security that effectively walled off Washington, D.C., from the people who live and work there. In the days ahead of the ceremony, the streets swelled with thousands of patrolling National Guardsmen.

I'd been to other inaugurations before — and covered one and its surrounding events, too. No matter the leanings of the newly elected president and his fans, these had been joyous occasions: people exulting in the pageantry's confidence and optimism.  

But this time was different. Yes, Americans still had that optimism; but for many, the confidence in tradition had been shaken if not shattered two weeks earlier, when a mob had invaded Capitol Hill and mixed mayhem with terror and loss of life.

The threat had not ended on Jan. 6.

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Members of the National Guard gather Tuesday at a security checkpoint near the U.S. Capitol ahead of the inaugural ceremony for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
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National Guard patrol the National Mall on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Some of our fellow citizens, angry about the election results showing Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump, warned they might return — might hold up the inauguration, might disrupt the system, might hurt more people. And I was assigned to cover this event for PEOPLE.

"Mom, please just stay home," my young-adult daughter told me while my college-age son offered that he and his friends could be my "bodyguards."

I decided not to tell my parents, both 93, who reside in a suburban-D.C. assisted living facility. Truth be told, my worry began to build, first waiting in a car line at the Pentagon for a mandatory COVID-19 test and then heading into town on Tuesday to pick up my credentials.

The drive to the Senate building where press had to convene for processing, usually about 20 minutes door-to-door from my house, took six times as long as we skirted jersey barriers and road closures. The law-enforcement presence was astounding, scores of National Guardsmen lining the streets near the Capitol and moving freely inside the Senate buildings, nodding friendly hellos in passing. I felt better, seeing this. We'd all be safe.

And then, waiting my turn to pick up my ticket, my editor, Adam Carlson, forwarded a message from the Capitol Police. Officials had issued a warning unlike any other, so serious it sounded almost ridiculous: Any member of the press who arrived to the inauguration on Wednesday wearing a bulletproof vest, gas mask or helmet would be denied entry. In the forward, my editor included a winky-face emoji and an "FYI!" Keep it silly, keep it light. Don't look down.

Later, at home, I carefully packed a messenger bag for the event: reporter's notebook, digital mini-recorder, extra phone battery, pens, water bottle, energy bars, gloves, four ibuprofen (you never know). I checked and double-checked that I had my credentials and proof of negative COVID test. Long underwear? Yes, top and bottom. Normal shoes or clompy sneakers? Who knew how many miles I'd have to walk. Comfort won out.

My seat on the west front of the Capitol needed to be claimed by 10 o'clock Wednesday morning, per the organizers' strict instructions, so I left the house at 7:45 a.m. to travel the short distance over an empty Key Bridge from Arlington, Virginia, into D.C., where a couple of TV crews were already doing their standups in the glint of morning sun.

My hired ride drove slowly through Georgetown, heading east into the heart of the district. The sidewalks were empty except for the occasional dog-walker and jogger. The police presence rose as I got closer, and so did my apprehension. It wasn't fear of being killed or maimed (yes, my mind had traveled to those places while walking my dogs in prior days: blinded! paralyzed!) — but rather that familiar tension I always get before leaving to report on a tragedy or disaster.

I walked silently and alone through the empty brick tunnels connecting the Senate buildings, eventually making my way to the Russell Senate Building rotunda where my credentials were checked. I hung around for a bit, watching people line up for their tickets. (Wait, was that John Kerry hurrying through? How about that guy — was he somebody?)

It was hard to tell who was who, with everyone masked up. I spotted Texas Sen. John Cornyn wearing a miniature state flag as a mask and carrying a cream-colored cowboy hat; and I saw Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, striking in a cobalt-blue coat, wheeling herself briskly along.

On I went, winding closer to the inauguration itself. Through another layer of security, turned over to a friendly Border Patrol agent who escorted me down the street, then through another checkpoint crowded with agents and to the entrance of the Capitol's west front, greeted by dozens of staffers in business-wear and sailors lining the path.

I rounded the corner and there it was: the Capitol dome, looming up, dressed in her finest.

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony
President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
| Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty
59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington DC
A socially distanced crowd sits at the U.S. Capitol for the inauguration of Joe Biden on Wednesday.
| Credit: Patrick Semansky/UPI/Shutterstock
US President-elect Joe Biden (R) and incoming US First Lady Jill Biden arrive for his inauguration as the 46th US President, on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington
Center, from left: Joe and Jill Biden arrive at his inauguration on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: CHANG W. LEE/POOL/AFP via Getty

My ticket read "Section 2, Amethyst. No. 009." Most press were corralled in bleachers to the right and left of the staging level where Biden and Kamala Harris would be sworn in shortly before noon. Other reporters could see the action, but they were stuck up there. Then a young usher pointed to my seat: a socially distanced folding chair on the slightly raised viewing platform just in front of the Marine Corps band. I thought: Thank you, PEOPLE magazine. And it was still only 9:40 a.m.

Although the top level of the Capitol was reserved for the senators and some Cabinet members and their guests, the west front's ticket-holders were members of Congress, judges, military brass, other VIPs and some media. Under the vigilant eyes of the inauguration's organizers and congressional staffers, Capitol Police and fresh-faced Marine ushers in their dress uniforms, most people mingled as if at a frigid lawn party (which, actually, it nearly was).

There were plenty of elbow- and fist-bumps but just as many fast hugs. And just like at any party, there were both the loners who took to their assigned seats and stayed there as well as the social butterflies. (D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in a shocking pink coat, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan both had people jostling for a quick word.)

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New Vice President Kamala Harris (second from left) celebrates with new President Joe Biden after being sworn in during the inauguration at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
| Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty
Former U.S. President George W. Bush, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), former U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive at the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden
From left: George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack and Michelle Obama at Wednesday's presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol
| Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty

I prowled around, looking for familiar faces beneath masks. Did I just see former House Speaker Paul Ryan, posing for photos? And D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, bending down to chat with Texas Rep. Al Green? And then there was Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, sporting a Harris-Biden mask, sitting with her teen daughter, who was hunched over her phone. "Nothing could, would or did keep me away today," she told me. "I've wanted Joe Biden to be president of the United States for literally my whole adult life. He and Kamala Harris are my heart."

I spotted Republican Rep. Jim Jordan in the crowd. I wondered whether the Ohio Republican, such an ardent support of Trump who over the last months had repeatedly dodged the question of whether Biden had fairly won the election, would talk to me. But of course he did. "This is as close to pageantry as our country gets, so it's just a special day for the greatest country ever," he said. "I hope [President-elect Biden] will talk about unifying the country and moving forward. The key is what's good for the United States."

I chatted with several other representatives: Al Green, John Sarbanes of Maryland, Steve Womack of Arkansas, Tim Walberg of Michigan. All expressed similar hope for the incoming president and vice president: shore up the foundations of our democracy. Reconcile. Unite. 

Finally, my fingers frozen and unable any longer to press the buttons on my digital recorder or scribble in my notebook, I took my seat as tens of millions of people tuned in from home.

And, well ... you know the rest. The rest, as they say, is history.

What won't I forget? The way the women's electric-colored coats flashed against the sea of basic black. How Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told us that we pledge today to "never take our democracy for granted," to cheers from the audience. The mighty sound of approval that rose up when Kamala D. Harris and Joseph R. Biden Jr. were sworn in.

Lady Gaga performs the National Anthem during the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2021
Lady Gaga
| Credit: Greg Nash/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Jennifer Lopez sings 'This Land is Your Land' during the inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Jennifer Lopez sings "This Land is Your Land" at Wednesday's inauguration at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021
Poet Amanda Gorman reads "The Hill We Climb," which she wrote for Joe Biden's inauguration, on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

And then the motionless hush as the new president read his address from a giant teleprompter beneath the bank of cameras, telling his fellow Americans that, on this day, his whole soul was in bringing the country together.

There were glistening tears around me as Lady Gaga sang the national anthem and smiles beneath masks as Jennifer Lopez transitioned into singing in Spanish before Garth Brooks delivered an a cappella singalong of "Amazing Grace."

The breakout performance, to so many, was by 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the country's youth poet laureate, who read "The Hill We Climb," written just for the occasion.

To the rest of us, Gorman offered this: "Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished."

The view of the U.S. Capitol prior to President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. taking the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States at the Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.
Credit: Ken Cedeno/UPI/Shutterstock
Joe Biden is sworn in as U.S. President as his wife Dr. Jill Biden looks on during his inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC
Joe Biden (left) is sworn in as president, with his family looking on, at Wednesday's inauguration at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: Rob Carr/Getty
Kamala Harris (L), with her husband Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, (C) is sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor (R) as US President-elect Joe Biden look on as the 49th US Vice President by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on January 20, 2021
Kamala Harris (left) is sworn in with her husband beside her at the Jan. 20 inauguration at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty

In front of Gorman, rolling out before Biden and Harris and all of the attendees, was the National Mall, usually crowded by the public at each inauguration. Not this year, not during a pandemic and not in the shadow of the Capitol riots and the threat of more violence — of the crack of gunfire, the silhouette of a falling body.

But there was none of that. There was, instead, a ceremony of songs and speeches and pledges to the future. Beneath it all, warmed by the noon sun on this frigid day, was a blossoming feeling of relief.

In my Lyft home, my driver, Redouane from Morocco, told me: "I think Biden will be a good guy. He cares about all people. All of us."

It was over, and it was just beginning.