From Trump to Biden, TV captures a dramatic shift

By John Koblin and Michael M. Grynbaum

For a moment, cable news found something to agree on.

At half past noon on Wednesday, shortly after President Joe Biden wrapped up an inaugural address calling for an era of reconciliation, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared that the “world witnessed democracy withstand one of its greatest tests.” Brian Williams of MSNBC said Biden “gave the kind of inaugural address our presidents used to give.”

On Fox News, home to right-wing stars like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham who relentlessly championed former President Donald Trump, anchors and pundits took turns lauding Biden’s message and the man who delivered it.

“I’ve been listening to these inaugural addresses since 1961,” said Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” anchor. “I thought this was the best inaugural address I ever heard.”

It was an unusual — and perhaps fleeting — moment for a cable news landscape that had been rived by the years of Trump. The cultural divide over a polarizing president and the increasingly fractured notion of what is true and what is a lie seemed to play out daily on 24-hour news networks, where Americans flocked in record numbers for outrage or comfort.

So it was strange to hear Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, tell Fox News viewers that Biden had delivered “a great speech for the moment,” around the time that CNN’s Jake Tapper praised the new president’s “steely determination and compassion.”

Hannity was set to deliver his take on Biden’s speech on Wednesday night, and it seemed doubtful that he would be as charitable. In the afternoon, Ben Domenech, a right-wing pundit and regular Fox News guest, allowed that Biden had begun on a “very good” note but added, pointedly, “The proof is going to be in the pudding.”

Other pro-Trump news outlets that had held off on declaring Biden the president-elect, even after his victory was irrefutable, were more willing to attack Trump’s successor in his first hours in office. On Newsmax on Wednesday, one pundit called the enormous security presence for the inauguration an effort “to further suppress the voice of the American people.”

On television, the day was split into two acts: Trump’s defiant exit followed by Biden’s triumphant arrival.

A little past 8 a.m., news cameras were trained on Marine One, the presidential helicopter, as it swooped past the Washington Monument and settled onto the South Lawn of the White House, preparing to spirit the image-conscious Trump away on one last ride.

“It is a stunning moment,” Tapper said on CNN as the president, in his trademark oversize red tie, and Melania Trump, in a jet-black Chanel ensemble, approached the aircraft. (Fox News anchor Ainsley Earhardt called the first lady’s outfit “a very Audrey Hepburn look.”)

The aerial view on every major network originated from a camera perched at the top of the Washington Monument. It provided a tableau that would not have been out of place in the opening credits of “The Apprentice,” complete with sunshine glinting off the surface of Marine One as it lifted into the sky, the soon-to-be-ex-president in tow.

Networks that devoted much of the past four years to criticizing Trump stuck to their theme in the final hours of his presidency. With no hedging, Tapper declared Trump “disgraced.” His colleague Dana Bash added: “He looks small. He just looks like a small man.”

With Marine One in flight, the ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos recalled another presidential departure by helicopter: “The image in my head,” he said, “is Richard Nixon in 1974.”

Correspondents noted the absence of Trump from the Inauguration Day ceremony, the first president in 152 years to skip out on the swearing-in of his successor. “This is a moment to turn the page,” said John Dickerson of CBS News. “We just have never seen a president who tried to hold on to the book.”

Marine One took Trump from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base, where he orchestrated his own farewell scene. Visually, it was no match for the patriotic regalia in store for Biden at the Capitol. A brief chant of “Thank you, Trump,” could be heard from the small crowd.

This was neither the fearsome protagonist of “The Apprentice” nor the pugnacious campaigner of his rallies. Instead, Trump delivered an off-the-cuff and somewhat circuitous speech, concluding, “Have a good life.”

On Fox News, the final images of his turbulent reign were overlaid with sympathetic commentary. “Regarding the press, he never got a break,” the “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy told viewers. “He’s got to be a little steamed that nobody in the history of the American presidency has been beaten up as badly as Donald Trump has over the past four years.”

As for Trump, he kept up his role as executive producer of the presidency until the end. He walked a red carpet to Air Force One, boarding the aircraft as the Village People’s disco anthem “YMCA” blared from loudspeakers.

The cameras stuck with Air Force One as it prepared for takeoff around 9 a.m. With anchors hushed, a familiar valedictory theme could be heard: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” The song reached a climax as the wheels of Air Force One left the ground. On CNN, the panelists could not suppress a few chuckles at a moment that seemed almost scripted.

Cut to an image of Biden and the future first lady attending a morning church service.

“The Biden family,” said anchor Anderson Cooper. “A new beginning.”

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