biden trump inauguration split
History shows just how different Biden's inauguration was (2021)
02:31 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jay Parini is a poet and novelist who teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Borges and Me, a memoir of his travels in the highlands of Scotland in 1971 with the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Words matter, and on Wednesday Joe Biden faced the first challenge of what will surely be a challenging presidency. His inaugural address arrived in the wake of a tempestuous, bitter presidency that has left the nation miserably divided, with over 400,000 dead from an out-of-control pandemic, with jobs declining, and with democracy itself having recently been assaulted by a frenzied mob of insurrectionists.

Jay Parini

For Americans, Inauguration Day has a sacredness about it. The ceremonial transfer of power is awesome in every sense: This day lies at the core of our national project. The people choose their leader for a discrete term of four years, allowing in most cases for a second four years in office. In his first inaugural, Ronald Reagan began his speech by musing on the peaceful transfer of power as “nothing less than a miracle.”

Reagan turned to face President Jimmy Carter, whom he’d just defeated and said: “Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.”

Cameras closed on Carter, who looked genuinely moved. Reagan paused, letting the words sink in.

The transfer of power is a key ritual of our democracy, and it’s been 152 years since a president has declined to attend the inauguration of his successor. That was in the wake of a deadly Civil War. By his refusal to attend the inauguration, Trump now joins Andrew Johnson (and two others) in this company of shame.

Even Trump, in 2017, gestured gratefully to Obama before, almost immediately, trashing him and his administration, summoning a vision of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape,” summoning a nation riddled with “crime and gangs and drugs,” declaring: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Obama did not smile.

Biden’s speech today was one of tempered optimism. He didn’t tell us that happy days are here again. But he observed that we celebrate the triumph “not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

My favorite sentences followed: “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

Everything else fell naturally from this assertion, as Biden went straight to the violence that has recently shaken “the Capitol’s very foundation.” And sadly, this wasn’t a metaphor!

Biden rightly challenged all of us, as John F. Kennedy did in 1961. “Over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far,” he said. “But we still have far to go” as we push forward through “this dark winter.”

This is indeed the winter of our discontent, reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s winter of 1933, in the throes of the Great Depression, when he suggested that only a foolish optimist could deny the “dark realities” that had consumed a nation.

Biden didn’t mince his words, naming the pandemic, the history of racial injustice, the environmental crisis, and the rise of political extremism and White supremacy as specific dire problems “that we must confront.”

He called for “unity, unity.” The word permeates his speech.

Of course, every sensible president in his inaugural returns to Abraham Lincoln, our greatest speech-maker. Biden cites the Emancipation Proclamation, where Lincoln declared: “My whole soul is in it.” Biden coopts this statement, saying. “My whole soul is in it.” By it, he means “uniting our nation” at a time when “racism, nativism, fear, demonization have torn us apart.”

One could hardly not see an invisible finger pointing at Trump.

Yet Biden wisely didn’t waste his breath on Trump. He noted that the “battle is perennial,” and the racial divisions that plague us go back centuries in this country.

Biden lifted our eyes beyond the last four years, saying that politics “doesn’t have to be a raging fire” that scours the earth. “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”

To be sure, Biden is the Great Sympathizer, and he leaned into that role here: “I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation.” Jobs and healthcare lie at the center of that anxiety, and he made it clear that he understands this.

And with Biden, the aura of caring, of deep sincerity, is palpable: We know what he’s been through with horrendous family tragedies, and this sadness illumines the man now. And he doesn’t shrink from the challenge ahead of us: “We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus.”

In perhaps his most poetic moment, Biden intoned: “We may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” This alludes mainly to Psalm 30 in the Bible, but one can’t not hear an echo of Reagan’s “morning in America.” Such hopefulness is essential in any good inaugural speech, even in hard times.

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    Biden’s inaugural speech was, in retrospect, a balancing act that succeeded admirably in speaking honestly about the multi-faceted crisis at hand while delivering a full measure of optimism. He wants to return us to an America marked by “decency and dignity.”

    We never expected President Biden to change the world with a single address. But putting the right words in the right order matters. I think Biden has inspired us, inviting us to set aside our differences as a nation, even as he rose to speak behind a bullet-proof barrier with 25,000 troops guarding him and his guests – a sad testament to where we’ve come as a nation in just a few short years.