Today, for only the second time that I can remember I watched a Presidential Inauguration. That wasn’t necessarily by design. This is the first inauguration held since I went into retirement. The other inauguration that I watched was in 2008, the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president. I was working that day but the historical moment compelled us all to pause. The office was silent as the staff gazed up at the television and that seminal moment.
There’s a recipe for a Presidential Inauguration. It’s a few parts hope; a few parts pride; a large measure of tradition and there’s always a dash of doubt. When it’s all done it’s topped with an icing of celebration; balls, parades, fireworks, speeches and patriotic pomp and ceremony. A lot of that icing was left out of today’s inauguration. A once in a century pandemic had already forced a change in the formula before the violence and insecurity of recent days forced the nation to leave off a lot of the icing. But just as we jerryrig the cake that turns out lopsided or dry and cracked, we work around the difficulty and continue with the business and the tradition of our Democracy.
Over the past two days I’ve experienced something that I haven’t known in four years – optimism. It started yesterday with a ceremony to honor those lost due to the pandemic. Even before taking office, on the day before their swearing in, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris delivered to the nation something it has not seen in four years. In a short, touching and heartfelt ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool the President and Vice President elect honored the 400,000 lives that have been lost in one short and paradoxically interminable year.
We’ve been gutting out four years of a president for the few. Yesterday Joe Biden took the first step in becoming a president for all Americans. Sadly his presidency for all, started with being the man for the departed; those who the outgoing president hardly bothered to acknowledge or mourn.
This nation has passed through four years of a presidency that’s lacked the grace, humanity, compassion and depth of feeling that Americans and people around the world rightfully expect from the President of the United States.
The words of Vice President Elect Kamala Harris echoed in the chill evening air, the cold reality of the past year in which the citizens have almost literally had to go it alone, abandoned by a leader who cared more about his reelection bid and subsequent loss than for the nation in his charge.
“We gather tonight, a nation in mourning, to pay tribute to the lives we lost,” said Ms. Harris. “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves.” She ended with a statement of unity, “Tonight we grieve together.”
President Elect Biden, a man who has known loss and who’s character of compassion has been formed by personal grief, followed with a few brief words, most poignantly, “It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here.”
At the conclusion of his remarks 400 lights, each representing 1000 departed Americans, were illuminated along the length of the pool.
I didn’t see the ceremony as it happened. I was on the way to a doctor’s appointment and I listened on the radio. When I heard the words of Kamala Harris, I was overcome by a wave of emotion; sadness and yes, anger. “What a waste,” I said to myself. My anger quickly gave way to cautious hope. On that cold evening I could feel a whisper of warmth in the nation’s capitol.
Today marked America’s 68th inauguration ceremony, the first one held on April 30th, 1789 in New York City, then America’s capitol city.
“Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years–a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
With these words, the very first words of the very first inaugural address, George Washington expressed those virtues which we should most expect from our chief executive. The man who commanded the revolutionary army and had hoped to spend his last years in quiet retirement was called once again to serve his country, called by a voice that he heard “with veneration and love.”
In the same opening paragraph he continued, turning to speak as a humble servant, calling to question his own qualifications in facing “the magnitude and difficulty” of the job in front of him.
And indeed it was a magnitudinous task. While the framers of the Constitution were specific in Article I, in describing the responsibilities of Congress, they were equally indistinct in Article II in describing the duties of the president. It was in essence a barebones job description that they entrusted Washington to flesh out. Washington was, and in many ways still is the presidential model. Many after him have expanded on the mold that Washington left; others have diminished the cast, leaving it to be repaired by presidents to follow.
That first inaugural was begun with a sunrise military salute by artillery at Fort George, followed by the ringing of church bells throughout the city for thirty minutes. Both houses of Congress, along with federal, state and local officials and hundreds of citizens were on hand to watch the swearing in. There was a mid-afternoon church service at St. Paul’s Chapel. The day’s festivities ended with a fireworks display after which the new president of a brand new nation, in an act symbolic of his humble bearing, walked home.
I started inauguration day with a ceremony of my own. I’d bought flags to display; a pleated flag like the ones you see hanging from a balcony or at the World Series. I also bought a new flag to replace the one that we’ve displayed for over 30 years; a sun bleached banner with frayed edges that I’ll deliver to the local VFW to be properly disposed of. For me this is a special day deserving of special commemoration.
I didn’t watch, as some friends of mine did, the departure of the 45th president. I saw their social media posts filled with glee; not a happiness that looks to the future but amusement over the sad, sullen departure of a president (Indeed Richard Nixon left with more dignity). There’s no joy to be found in the outgoing president’s skulk into private citizenship. He is behind me and I leave him for justice to determine his fate and history his legacy.
Cora and I started with the entrance to the inaugural by the dignitaries; past presidents, leaders of Congress, Supreme Court Justices and yes, Mike Pence, the outgoing Vice President.
There were scenes that stood out in particular.
Pence and his wife stood by themselves, awkward moments, until former President Clinton engaged Pence in conversation. A sunsetting of recrimination?
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, opposites in politics, side by side in conversation.
Michelle Obama and George W. Bush, talking together, having become close friends over the years.
Lady Gaga entered the stage wearing a bright red hoop skirt and black top decorated with a dove of peace. I remarked to Cora, “Who dressed her? Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek?”
Gaga didn’t disappoint sartorially nor did she disappoint with her beautiful, un-flourished version of The National Anthem. She delivered the song with the dignity it deserves.
J-Lo was announced and Cora said, “I hope she’s not showing her boobs.” Certainly not. A very chic cream colored outfit.
After the ceremony, Vice President Harris and her husband walked the outgoing Vice President Mike Pence and his wife to their limousine, stopping to talk and exchange some laughs.
The signature event of every inauguration is the incoming president’s address. It is in some small way an epilogue to the outgoing administration but more importantly it is the prologue to the upcoming four years. It is a hint of what America and indeed the world should expect in the coming years. The content of the message is traditionally tied to the events and the tenor of the times. The incoming president’s message often reflects on work; on hope; on peace; on unity and on challenges.
“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 20th, 1937, as the world faced the Great Depression.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
John F. Kennedy, January 20th, 1961
In that same vein, President Biden, in his speech said, “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
We don’t know whether or not President Biden will be able to successfully tackle the job of unifying the nation and reestablishing America’s place in the world. What I do know is that his heart is in the right place. Like George Washington, Joe Biden came out of retirement. He saw a nation torn and in need of leadership and like Washington heard it’s cry; the voice “that he could never hear but with veneration and love.”
Our recent election wasn’t the first contentious election nor will it be the last. The election of 1800 pitted incumbent John Adams against Thomas Jefferson. At one time, close friends and confidants by 1800 they had become bitter political rivals. Jefferson won the election, the first in which party politics played a major role. Included in Jefferson’s inaugural address was a call for unity.
“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
(Years later Adams and Jefferson, repaired their broken friendship. In one of the great touching ironies of history, these two men, original revolutionaries, both passed away on Independence Day, July 4, 1826).
It’s abundantly clear that success going forward depends on unity, a task that seems almost insurmountable. I’ve said it before in this space, that Joe Biden was not my first choice to be president. He was in fact towards the bottom of my list. That said, today I believe that Joe Biden represents our best, maybe not last, but our best opportunity to achieve unity. President Biden spoke of the litany of challenges ahead; the pandemic, racial justice, healthcare and stability of the middle class. But the overarching subject was unity.
“But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like — look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same source as you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.
If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we are willing to stand in the other person’s shoes — as my mom would say — just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life: there’s no accounting for what fate will deal you.
Some days, when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another.
Somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
At the end of the day those of us who consider ourselves “winners” because “our guy” won should take a mindful, reflective look to the future. This isn’t the time to gloat. It isn’t the time for cries of reckoning; there are others in positions of power and justice who will see to that task. This is not the time to think in terms of victors and vanquished. This is the time to, in President Biden’s words, “show a little tolerance and humility.”
There were tears in our home today, some shed during the reading of the inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, written and presented by Amanda Gorman. It’s fitting to conclude this piece with the closing words of Ms. Gorman’s poem.
“So let us leave behind a country better than 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 wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the Lake Rim cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in 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.”
Note: I took the banner photo during a morning run through the National Mall. It was a spectacular sight.