Joe Biden didn’t have to do a lot with his inaugural address Wednesday, just deliver a concise, clear speech that somehow knit together the soul of a deeply fractured nation. He needed to offer healing and comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives have been ripped apart by the COVID-19 pandemic while sketching out a vision for the next four years that spoke to both Main Street and Wall Street.
In other words, no pressure.
But Biden, a politician with the soul of a parish priest, pulled it off, delivering a speech that appealed to the nation’s better angels. He accomplished this while not shying away from the titanic challenge of healing the gaping wound that his predecessor ripped in our body politic with four years of gaslighting, and sledgehammer attacks on our institutions.
Where his predecessor nursed grievance and exacerbated division, Biden on Wednesday sought reconciliation and, perhaps, even a kind of forgiveness.
“And so today, at this time, in this place, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another,” Biden said in remarks that stretched an economical 20 minutes. “Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.”
He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name. He didn’t have to.
Trump, the first president to skip an inauguration in 152 years, skulked out of Washington hours before Biden took to the stage at the U.S. Capitol. He left the city in much the same way he entered it, in a funk of self-aggrandizement and a barrage of self-serving falsehoods.
That graceless exit saw Trump try to deflect attention away from the defining facts of his legacy: More than 400,000 Americans dead from a pandemic he was too disinterested in to stop and the attempted coup d’etat he incited just two weeks before, leaving him the only chief executive in American history to be impeached twice.
Biden’s prayerful address, prefaced Tuesday night by a ceremony on the National Mall honoring the pandemic’s victims that was, by turns, beautiful, painful, and consoling, strained for connection for the American public.
The contrast with Trump’s dystopian “American Carnage” address, delivered four years (and several lifetimes ago) could not have been more stark.
And because he was where he was, in a capital city turned into an armed camp by Trump’s Coup Klutz Clowns, Biden acknowledged the violence that rocked the Capitol on Jan. 6, referring to the “riotous mob” who “thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people.”
Tens of millions of Americans, egged on by Trump, still believe the fiction that his election was fraudulent. Reaching them could be impossible. Nonetheless, he offered a hand.
“To all those who did not support us, take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy, that’s America,” he said. “I will be a president for all Americans. I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me, as those who did.”
True, words will only get Biden part of the way. On Thursday he’ll woke up to a Washington where his party barely controls the House, is tied in the Senate, and one of Trump’s chief enablers – Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley – is already throwing roadblocks in the new administration’s way.
On Wednesday, Biden reminded us of who we were, fellow Americans who are there for each other at a time of trial; who we can be again at our best, a people who “open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” and warning that “we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”
And as if he were leaving mass, he sent the crowd forth: “So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to the tasks of our time, sustained by faith, driven by conviction, and devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts.”
It was benediction from a politician with the soul of a parish priest. It is also the challenge of our times.
Copyright 2020 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.