WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton probably thought often about what it would be like to look out on the lawn of the Capitol as the page was finally turned on the divisive 2016 election, but she would have imagined a very different tableau than the one before her Friday.
The defeated Democratic presidential nominee was looking on from fewer than 10 seats away as Donald Trump took the oath of office. She was fulfilling the role of a former first lady instead of becoming the first woman to be inaugurated as president – the outcome that seemed certain less than three months ago.
“I’m here today to honor our democracy &; its enduring values. I will never stop believing in our country &; its future,” Clinton said in a tweet just before the ceremony began.
Clinton sat beside former president Bill Clinton, her only job to be a symbol of the democratic tradition that the living former presidents are witness to the peaceful assumption of power of a new leader. For Democrats, the few feet that separated her from the lectern belied the very long distance between what is and what might have been.
“It is so viscerally unappealing and ghoulish, and too fantastical for a movie plot, really,” Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for the Democrat’s campaign, said ahead of the ceremony. “Spectacularly ghoulish. But she will approach it and get through it the way she always does.”
Clinton was a spectator to a scene she had told voters was unthinkable and gravely risky for the future of the country. Although she won the popular vote, she lost the Nov. 8 election. And now, she stood a few feet away as Trump, a man she had called reckless, unqualified and unfit, was administered the oath of office.
She was there even as more than 60 Democratic members of Congress boycotted the ceremony in protest of the man who defeated her. She was there even as many Democrats, and many of her close friends, urged her to stay away.
“It’s clearly a very healing thing for her to show up to the election of the guy who beat her, especially because he beat her surprisingly,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., a strong Clinton supporter and one of those who chose to stay away.
“Forgive me for being not entirely consistent” for applauding Clinton’s decision to attend, Beyer added.
As Trump delivered his inaugural address, which echoed the nationalistic tone of his campaign stump speeches, cameras caught Clinton looking down. He did not mention her or offer a broad welcome to her supporters.
“This is not something I think she had to do, but it is something I’m proud of her for doing,” said Palmieri, who noted that she was not speaking on the former candidate’s behalf. “She always says she is cursed by the responsibility gene, and this is something she thought was her responsibility. She thought it was her responsibility and role to go.”
Clinton did not respond when reporters called to her as she entered the Capitol, asking how she felt. Her flat expression – with her mouth set – was probably a pretty good guide to how she felt. She did not smile as cameras captured her walking through the Capitol on Bill Clinton’s arm. She stared straight ahead as, at 10:50 a.m., CNN broadcast a split-screen image of her and Trump, both on their way to their appointed places at the ceremony.
She did smile broadly as she and Bill Clinton took their seats to scattered applause. And she grinned as Michelle Obama joined the Clintons as well as former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter and their wives. Clinton wore white, the symbolic color of the women’s suffrage movement, as did both of Trump’s adult daughters.
“It shows a great deal of grace and class for her to be there,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a supporter and former top aide. “I’m sure it is uncomfortable and a little painful,” Doyle added, especially with the backdrop of Trump’s public feud with civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who had called Trump’s election illegitimate.
“She’s leading by example that it’s time to unify and move on,” Doyle said.
Moving on for Clinton is not expected to include attending the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday. Friends said she was expected to return to New York on Friday.
Before leaving town, however, the former first lady, senator and presidential nominee joined Bill Clinton at the post-inaugural luncheon at the Capitol. They were swarmed by Democratic members of Congress and a few Republicans before settling in at a table in the corner of Statuary Hall, seated with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., the No. 2 GOP leader, and Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary nominee.
When Trump entered the room he walked to the Clintons’ table and shook her hand. “Thank you for being here,” Trump whispered.
The new president later singled out the Clintons for attending the event.
“There is something that I wanted to say: Because I was very honored-very, very honored-when I heard that President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton was coming today. And I think it’s appropriate to say… I’d like you to stand up.”
The room broke into a bipartisan round of applause as Trump pointed at Clinton, whom he had called “guilty as hell” during their bitter election contest.
He gave her a thumbs up and pumped his fist in appreciation toward her.
“Honestly,” he said, “There’s nothing more I can say because I have a lot of respect for those two people.”
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