Behind The Scenes of Inauguration Day

President Joe Biden takes the oath of office

It’s been a while since I’ve written a “behind-the-scenes” post, but I can’t imagine a better day to recount than yesterday. It was a day of relief, joy, and purpose, and I’m so grateful to everyone who helped get us there. Swearing in a new president on the same day as the Senate switched control made Wednesday a day of consequence for the nation, and I’m grateful for both the faith that Connecticut has placed in me to be a part of this historic moment, but also for the work that so many people put into getting Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and so many Democratic Senators elected. What follows is a behind-the-scenes account of what yesterday looked like from my vantage point.

A Text from Kamala

I woke up to a text from my friend Kamala Harris. She recalled that we had sat next to each other at the 2017 inauguration and reminisced about a funny story that occurred that day. I texted her back to tell her how proud I was of her, and how excited I am to get to work. I jumped in the car to head into the Capitol, leaving extra time to get around all the security barriers surrounding the campus. I checked in at the health station set up by the Inaugural Committee to confirm my negative COVID test from the day before (required for every attendee) and gathered on the second floor of the Russell Senate building to walk over to the ceremony with my colleagues.

We arrived on the platform at about 10:15 am, since the program didn’t really start for another 45 minutes, there was lots of time to catch up with Senators. Since January 6th, there has been a noticeably different vibe in the Senate. I don’t know if it will last, but my sense is that many Republicans realize how close the country came to disintegration, and how dangerous it is for America if Donald Trump continues to run the Republican Party. At about 11:00 am, we were told to head to our seats, which were socially distanced from each other on risers above the main stage.

As the program was beginning, I noticed the seat next to me was unoccupied. I don’t know which Senator was missing, but the ushers quickly filled it with a Senate staffer who had volunteered to help with the logistics of the day. Her name was Alexis, and she was welling up with tears as she took her seat with the rest of the Senate. We chatted as the ceremony began, and I could tell she was just overcome with excitement — both because of the historic nature of the day and her chance to see it from such good seats! I try to make sure none of this pageantry ever becomes “normal,” but it did help to see the day through the fresh eyes of someone like Alexis.

Clouds covered the Capitol during the early moments of the program. I made a last-minute decision to not wear long underwear (mistake), and I worried that my shaking legs were causing a scene. But soon, the sun came out (right on cue), and my body temperature stabilized. At first, when I saw Lady Gaga come out the door, I worried that the dress might be a little too much for the occasion. But then, once she began singing, I realized that in fact, the day, up to that point, had unsurprisingly a tension attached to it that had lingered, and Lady Gaga’s theatrical, celebratory rendition of the national anthem lifted the mood of the audience.

A Quiet Afternoon

I walked back from the ceremony with Kansas’s new Senator, Roger Marshall. Marshall was one of the small handful of Senators who voted for the Hawley and Cruz motions to overturn the election results, and of course, his decision infuriated me. And while it’s going to be hard to find a way to work with these Senators, I feel like I have an obligation, especially for the new members, to get to know them and hear them out. I think that was the whole point of Biden’s speech — to challenge the nation to find a way to figure out what common ground exists amidst such disagreement. So I made small talk with Roger and his wife as we walked back to the Senate office buildings, heard about their excitement about the pending birth of their third grandchild, and made plans to get together in the near future.

On January 6th, I had asked a handful of staff to be in the office given the likely busy nature of the day. That was a mistake I regret, as seven of my staff were sequestered in our office for the entire day until the rioters were cleared from the Capitol. I didn’t want to risk that again, so I asked my staff to all work from home on Inauguration Day. So when I got back to the office, it was dead quiet. I went down the cafeteria to get lunch and ran into Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Reflecting that new tone I spoke of, he told me that he had introduced and endorsed Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense at the hearing on Tuesday. “I’m trying to do my part,” said Sullivan. I took my turkey sandwich back up to the office and spent the next few hours on phone with Connecticut and national reporters, talking about the hope of the new administration.

“What Does This Button Do?”

At 4:30 pm, I made my way to the Senate chamber to witness history. Vice President Harris entered the chamber to an eruption of bipartisan applause and down the center aisle of the Senate walked Alex Padilla, Jon Ossoff, and Raphael Warnock, the three new Senators that would create a Democratic Senate majority. Kamala chucked as she announced that Padilla was sworn into the vacancy being created by “former Senator Kamala D. Harris.” “That was very weird,” she whispered to the Parliamentarian, perhaps not cognizant that her microphone was still on.

Soon thereafter, the Majority Leader’s gavel passed to Senator Chuck Schumer and he gave a short, emotional speech about the miracle of a country where the son of a Brooklyn exterminator could become the leader of the U.S. Senate. After Schumer’s speech, I snuck out of the chamber to do a live appearance on Connecticut’s Fox affiliate (on Zoom, from my office), and then I hustled into my car to drive out of the building in order to give remarks at a fundraiser for the Connecticut Democratic Party. The party chairwoman, Nancy Dinardo, asked me to explain to the guests why I was bathed in the dim glow of my Chevy’s overhead lights, and I explained that no political business can be conducted inside the Capitol buildings, and no non-government buildings were open given the tight security, so I had to resort to speaking from my car.

After my remarks, I returned to the Senate chamber to vote on the nomination of Avril Haines to be National Intelligence Director. I cornered my friend, Republican Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and pressed him on how we could expedite the vote on Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken. I ran into Inaugural Committee Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri, and told how fantastic his ad-libs were on stage (“I should have known when Senator Klochuchar got involved, at least there’d be a touch of snow up here this morning,” he joked at the ceremony). And then I got tugged on the arm by a floor staffer reminding me that I was due to preside over the Senate at 7:00 pm sharp.

I looked up at the dais, where my close friend Senator Brian Schatz was in the presiding chair, and I thought about how neat it was to have him pass the gavel to me on the first day of Democratic control, after he and I had worked together to raise millions of dollars online for Democratic candidates, like Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. “It’s all yours,” he said to me as we switched places. I sat down in the Senate President’s chair and looked worryingly at all the buttons in front of me. “What does this button do?” I asked one of the parliamentarians. “That’s the button to mute your microphone. Use it generously.” A few minutes later I announced the final vote on Haines and transmitted news of her confirmation to the White House, and then I adjourned the Senate with a loud thud of the small gavel.

I went back to my office to gather my things (after realizing I left the key to the office on my desk, requiring me to go to the Senate Superintendent to borrow another key to my office) and saw that a reporter had posted a picture of me in the presiding chair to Twitter. After six years of seeing Republicans occupying that chair, it looked so strange, to see a picture of me on the dais. I copied the picture to my phone and immediately made it my new Twitter profile picture.

“#NewProfilePic” read the automatic tweet that went out. Lots of things new, I thought, as I locked up my office, and headed out the door.

U.S. Senator, Connecticut