Just two weeks ago, it seemed entirely possible that two centuries of US representative democracy might well come to a violent, untimely end, when a mob rampaged through the Capitol, eager to overturn the then ongoing certification of Joe Biden’s electoral vote count by the US Congress. Egged on by the now-former president and his arm-waving, snarling crew of supporters, hundreds of people ransacked the Capitol before finally being driven out by police reinforcements, after hours of chaos and riot.
Fast-forward to Wednesday 20 January. The presidential inauguration was taking place in a city under the protection of tens of thousands of National Guard troops and police from across the nation, and simultaneously under social distancing restrictions in response to the still-untrammelled Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, rather than the many hundreds of thousands of spectators who would have packed the National Mall – stretching out from the West Front of the Capitol towards some of Washington’s great monuments and flanked by the vast repository of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums – only a very limited crowd was seated on the tiers of the West Front of the Capitol. Instead, the Mall was festooned with thousands of flags, symbolic of the vast tide of death from Covid-19 as well as the national community witnessing the swearing-in by television and online streaming.
Meanwhile, of course, defying a longstanding tradition, the soon-to-be former president had ducked out of the formal transfer of power (not even bothering to welcome the president-elect into the White House in the morning before that noon hour), and then he left for Florida from Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland.
There was a sad little farewell event that had odd music choices and a mawkish, short speech that recycled the old lies, and then the soon-to-be first couple, with the accompaniment of Frank Sinatra singing My Way, after having heard the anthem YMCA by the Village People, took a last trip on Air Force One.
The country will not miss the incessant splenetic attacks and vitriol.
Back at the Capitol, the new president, Joe Biden, and vice-president, Kamala Harris, took their oaths of office, Lady Gaga delivered a soulful rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, Jennifer Lopez sang This Land is Your Land, Garth Brooks offered Amazing Grace (asking the world to sing with him at home), and the 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman delivered an extraordinarily apt poem, The Hill We Climb, that has already been drawing global praise.
We repeat it here, in its entirety, for readers’ benefit and pleasure.
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while we once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
By the time the new president rose to deliver his inaugural address, the crowd at the Capitol, and audiences globally via television and online, were ready to understand the reality of what this transfer of power has meant — moving on from a raging basilisk to an Irish Catholic mensch, ready, ever eager to turn the national page and get to work.
Sprinkling references from Abraham Lincoln and St Augustine, along with allusions to ideas in common with the thoughts of former president Barack Obama, the new president delivered a plainly phrased text that seemed apropos of the moment – a moment of great national stress and suffering from a pandemic, the economic collapse, and that deep fissure in the nation’s body politic.
(That divide, of course, had been assisted mightily by the words and deeds of a newly former president.)
As Biden said, “This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope of renewal and resolve through a crucible for the ages. America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
He went on to say, “This is a great nation. We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far. But we still have far to go. We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.
“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now. A once-in-a-century virus that silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War 2. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
The new president went on to insist, “Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward, reward work and rebuild the middle class and make healthcare secure for all. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonisation have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.”
The president added, “Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour and yes, the truth.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.
“Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, can I keep my healthcare? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you, I get it.
“But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
This was certainly not lofty, ringing rhetoric – Biden is not an orator the likes of the man he served loyally as vice-president. And his address certainly did not try to paper over the obvious divides or to minimise the challenges faced by the president and the country. Nor was it an effort to excoriate the man who had preceded him, save through the example of the new president’s careful words and demeanour. But it may have been just enough to exorcise some of the demons that have been afflicting the nation for the past four years.
After the traditional visit in the rotunda of the Capitol for the congressional gifts to the president and vice-president (but without the usual lunch, in deference to the pandemic), it was off to nearby Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and then on to the White House to get to work. The traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue has almost been dispensed with, out of respect for the pandemic, save for a few groups and the president’s ride and walk to the White House. A virtual event, hosting bands and marchers from across the country, live but virtually, has substituted for the traditional parade.
Meanwhile, many of Biden’s White House staff have already started their move into their offices in the White House complex. The plan is to have the new president sign some 15 executive orders and other instruments on the first day in office. These will include some that will roll back specific executive orders from the previous administration, and to state the Biden administration’s intent to re-affiliate with the Paris Climate Accord.
At least for one day, partisan rancour has been left behind. Even the new Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had kind words for the new president and vice-president, extolling their virtues of coming from the Senate, and also taking care to remind Speaker Nancy Pelosi that both of them skipped the House entirely, in a rare attempt to lighten the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust between Democrats and Republicans.
It will be up to the new administration to find common ground with Republicans in the Congress, some of whom, having lost the rabble-rouser-in-chief, may actually be amenable to finding common ground with the new president on some issues and policies. On this, of course, the jury will be out for a while yet.
The new Biden administration has bold, some would say audacious, plans in many areas, but it will need to find its own path in the days and weeks ahead towards acceptable compromises as well. DM
"A bit of trash now and then is good for the severest reader. It provides the necessary roughage in the literary diet." ~ Phyllis McGinley