Forty-four is doing one of his trademark, wistful scholarly looks. In the row in front, 43 grins at a joke he’s just thought of, then cranes his head and neck hard to the right to share it. Forty-two, the first First Gentleman that never quite was, pushes his palms together in gentle, momentary applause. He who would yet be 46 reaches in for a gloved handshake.
And then 45 opens his angled gob, breathes out, presses his tongue into the back of his tiny veneers and begins. Not much of President Trump’s inaugural address has aged well, but none of it has aged as badly as the beginning. “Every four years," he says, “we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.”
It’s not merely that four years later, he will not be among those gathering to do the same. It’s more that he began, almost that very day, undermining the process he praised with his very first words as president. He was banging the phoney drum of voter fraud and mail-in ballots in a matter of days, laying the groundwork for what would come, a fortnight ago, undermining the foundations on which he stood.
The only phrase that day that ever lingered in the memory was the one about “American carnage” and how it would “stop now”. Again, that is not quite what came to pass.
To watch it back now, how many of the clues were there? Well, you can only answer that once you’ve come to a firm view on what has actually happened in the last four years, and it is too early to do that, too. Did America take a look at post-democratic proto-fascism and issue a firm, "no thanks"? Or is its path now set to a darker place, with or without Trump? There’s no point speculating. We do not know.
His words that day were the standard paint-by-numbers brush strokes of authoritarianism. You don’t need the wisdom of the years gone by to tell you that. It was as clear then as it is now. “We are transferring power from Washington DC and handing it back to you,” he says.
Then comes the usual bogeyman stuff, against the powerful elites, the vested interests, that can always be attacked, because they can never defend themselves, because they don’t really exist. “For too long," he goes on, "Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left.”
The idea that America, or any developed, democratic nation, has been asset stripped by its political class is specious and absurd, just as it has been every other time this playbook has been run, back down the decades and across the world.
It would be barely days before one of his most loyal spokespeople Kellyanne Conway, was on the news channels, shouting the words, “Buy Ivanka’s stuff.” Using her high office to tell Americans to buy from a homeware product line endorsed by the president’s daughter.
A little while later, the US ambassador to the UK would be personally charged, by the president, with the job of lobbying the organisers of the British Open golf tournament to host its contest at a Trump owned venue.
There was the standard stuff about “forgotten men and women” with simple dreams, “good schools, safe neighbourhoods and good jobs”, that had been taken from them, either by immigrants coming or their jobs leaving.
There were faint signs that the man had lost his mind, but only faint. At one point, he would claim that America sent their children to “schools that deprive them of all knowledge”.
In some ways, those who are over 70 age more slowly. Eight years in the White House cost Obama his youth. Trump never had his to begin with, but it does appear to have robbed him of whatever capacity for cogent thought he might have had at the start. The president that would later tell a news reporter that he had successfully managed to remember the words “person, woman, man, camera, TV” in that order barely seems to exist inside him.
Out on the mall, all-American men and women whoop and holler. They’re fully sold on all this. That this was the day America was reborn. That it would now, as their hero promised, put “America first”.
Rarely are they happier than in his rousing conclusion, that really does include a promise to “free the world from the miseries of disease”. Didn’t quite work out that way.
It’s partially true that Trump delivered on some of the promises made that day, not least to stop “subsidising foreign armies”. But his biggest promise is the one that has been kept by every president. America has always, always, always put itself first. It fights foreign wars in half forgotten places to preserve a world it dominates.
It is not, however, too early to judge the meaning of his final four words, the ones written across the red baseball cap he declined to wear. As he says the words, “Make America Great Again", and raises two fists to his chest, you can just about spot Joe Biden gazing up at the winter sky, looking, dare one say it, slightly bored. It certainly doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that, four years hence, that particular challenge and its terrifying magnitude will be falling upon him.