TV Captures the End of a Tumultuous Presidency

Hours before Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the presidential oath of office, President Trump offered one more made-for-TV moment.

A little past 8 a.m. on Wednesday, the cable news channels and major broadcast networks were trained on images of 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 Mr. Trump away on one last ride.

“It is a stunning moment,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper, as cameras captured the president, in his trademark oversize red tie, and Melania Trump, in a jet-black Chanel ensemble, approaching the aircraft. A Fox News anchor called the first lady’s outfit “a very Audrey Hepburn look.”

The aerial view seen on every major network originated from a camera perched at the top of the Washington Monument. It provided a rare and dramatic tableau that would not have been out of place in the opening credits of “The Apprentice,” complete with sunshine reflecting 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 Mr. Trump and his tenure stuck to the theme. With no hedging, Mr. Tapper declared Mr. Trump “disgraced.” His colleague Dana Bash added: “He looks small. He just looks like a small man.”

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

Inauguration Day is a television tradition that has been relatively unchanged for decades, much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Academy Awards broadcast or the Super Bowl. There is a playbook: The president-elect arrives at the White House to meet his predecessor; a motorcade heads to the Capitol; anchors talk poetically about the peaceful transfer of power.

On Wednesday, nearly a year into a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, two weeks after a violent crowd of Trump supporters rioted at the Capitol, and one week after Mr. Trump became the first president to be impeached twice, there was a notably different tone.

“You don’t see a whole lot of tourists or spectators, you see a lot of police and military personnel,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said a little after 7 a.m., over shots of the elaborate security apparatus and deserted Washington streets. On CBS, the anchor Tony Dokoupil asked, “How did we get to the point where there are more law enforcement in Washington, D.C., than in overseas wars?”

Pomp and celebration, the usual TV tropes of the day, were laced with remarks about a potential outbreak of violence, not an unreasonable concern in the wake of what occurred at the Capitol. And then there was the absence of Mr. Trump himself, the first president in 152 years to skip out on the inauguration of his successor.

“This is a moment to turn the page,” said the “60 Minutes” correspondent John Dickerson. “We just have never seen a president who tried to hold on to the book.”

Marine One took Mr. 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 Mr. Biden at the Capitol. A few chants of “Thank you, Trump,” could be heard from the small crowd.

This was not the fearsome protagonist of “The Apprentice,” nor the pugnacious campaigner of his rallies. Instead, Mr. Trump delivered an off-the-cuff and somewhat circuitous speech, concluding, “Have a good life.”

On Fox News, the images were overlaid with commentary in defense of Mr. Trump. “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 Mr. Trump, he kept up his role as executive producer of the presidency until the very end. He walked a red carpet to the entrance to Air Force One, boarding the presidential aircraft as the Village People’s disco anthem “Y.M.C.A.” blared from loudspeakers.

The cameras stuck with Air Force One as it prepared to take off at around 9 a.m. With anchors hushed, a familiar valedictory tune 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.

Cut to an image of Mr. Biden and the future first lady attending a morning church service. “The Biden family,” said the anchor Anderson Cooper. “A new beginning.”

Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.

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