Without losing sight of the enormous repair work before us — repairing American Democracy after Donald Trump’s wrecking-ball of a tenure, repairing the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic — it was still possible to take a measure of cheer and encouragement from the sober and subdued Inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Nobody but nobody is under any illusion about the enormity of the repair work ahead, but the notes sounded this Inauguration Day — of truth, poetry, reality: the return to — are the notes that linger and, upon further reflection, seem just the right notes to the troops (us) to carry on. That these notes were sounded at the very site — the U.S. Capitol, where exactly two weeks earlier an insurrectionist mob rampaged, in a failed coup incited by the loser of the 2020 election — only added to the resonance (also here and here). Of the enormity of Mr. Biden’s task, veteran journal Jeff Greenfield claims that only Abraham Lincoln faced a tougher challenge.
TRUTH. “Truthful” is not a conventional term to use when describing a presidential Inauguration (“It was so truthful”), but: This Inauguration was exactly that: truthful, literally full of truth — refreshingly so, shockingly so, not to say miraculously so, considering that we survived four long and tortured years of un-truth, in-sanity. The lies, a record level coming from the then-President, which led to more lies in elaboration, which led the then-President’s allies to spin more lies in defense, resulted in (no hyperbole) the erection of a grand House of Lies and Lying, engulfing us all, forcing us to reside in the Land of Untruth. It was….hideous. These last years I thought often of the abbé who, asked what he did during the chaos of the French Revolution, said simply: “I survived.” Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s formulation was also front of my mind: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
But at Biden’s Inauguration, the lying and the untruth, mirabile dictu, stopped. Instantly, we were transported back to the Land of Objective Reality, the Sane, the Truth — all good things, once upon a time capitalized, banished by the old regime’s leader tweeting lies in ALL CAPS. Lest this sound too rosy, allow the honest feeling: To be freed — at last — of the muck and shame of being force-fed lies! To get just a whiff of clean air is elevating, liberating. The lack of ideological cant, the cessation of false claims, the disassembling of the House of Lies and Lying, brought tears to many eyes, including mine. And joy: Van Jones of CNN put it hilariously, commenting on the post-Inaugural press conference conducted by Biden press secretary Jen Psaki: “It’s just mesmerizing to watch a functional government, doing functional government-type things. I mean, there was a press conference, and there was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and then somebody asked a question, and the person answered the question, and you’re just crying, ‘Oh my God!’” I laughed in delight: Back to Truth.
Of course, that nearly half the American public still believes the old regime’s un-truths remains the knottiest of our problems (how to repair that?). But, reinvigorated, we can parse better.
POETRY. Poetry, the highest of human expression for conveying elemental truth so briefly, generally cannot be sounded in a time of lying and un-truth. Yes, it can be created — and it’s perhaps in dark times that the most memorable poetry is written (see: Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” written in exile); but aired and heard? Not so much. Which is why the poem performed by Amanda Gorman — “The Hill We Climb” (text here, video here) — pierced so deeply. Finishing the poem just after the mob rampaged the Capitol, a mob largely comprised of white supremacists, this African-American poet, just 22 years old, grappled directly with America’s most elemental problem — racism — while pointing to ultimate harmony: “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.” Describing America as “simply unfinished,” not “broken,” the poet invoked her title: “The hill we climb, if only we dare it: / Because being American is more than a pride we inherit — / It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.” The theme of repair….
Biden often cites a line by his favorite poet, Seamus Heaney: “when hope and history rhyme.” It’s from Heaney’s verse play “The Cure at Troy” and it was recited by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton,” at the Inaugural concert (video here). “Human beings suffer, / They torture one another, / They get hurt and get hard. / No poem or play or song / Can fully right a wrong / Inflicted and endured… / History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme. / So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here. / Believe in miracles / And cures and healing wells. / Call miracles self-healing: / The utter, self-revealing / Double-take of feeling. / If there’s fire on the mountain / And lightning and storm / And a god speaks from the sky / That means someone is hearing / The outcry and the birth-cry / Of new life at its term.” Then, departing from text and chiming with Biden, he/they ended: “It means, once in a lifetime, / Justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.”
Think of it: We now have a President aiming to make hope and history rhyme. With the previous one, there was no poetry at all; heck, there was hardly any prose. Instead of rhyming, there was dissonance, chaos. To the rhyming!
REALITY. It was in President Biden’s Inaugural Address that these notes — a return to truth, poetry, reality — all combined. Reality most emphatically, spoken truthfully and poetically (transcript of speech here; video here).
Opening, the new President reasserted: “This is democracy’s day.” Implicitly referencing the mob and his predecessor, both anti-democratic, he said: “Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge…. [D]emocracy has prevailed.” Fronting our harsh reality, Mr. Biden went on: “We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility…. A once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the country…. A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us”; in reaction, there “now arise political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” Doing so requires “that most elusive thing in a democracy: Unity.” He quoted Abraham Lincoln who, on signing the Emancipation Proclamation, said: “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.” Taking unity as his mission, Mr. Biden vowed: “My whole soul is in it…. [M]y whole soul is in this: Bringing America together.” He invited America to “[t]ake a measure of me and my heart.”
Midway, Mr. Biden recurred to the “riotous mob” that sought to “use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, and to drive us from this sacred ground. That did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.” He welcomes dissent: “The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our republic, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength.” But, laying down a marker — and restating the kind of reality democracy requires — he said, channeling Lincoln: “Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion.” Declared the new President: “We must end this uncivil war.”
On the return to truth, Mr. Biden three times stressed the preceding era of lies, first early on — “[W]e must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured” — and then midway more emphatically: “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….and especially as leaders….to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.” Later, calling this “a time of testing,” he restated, “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth.” The reality democracy requires is truthfulness. For his part, Mr. Biden vowed: “I will always level with you.”
To the world, Mr. Biden declared: “America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it.” Acknowledging his predecessor’s rejection of America’s global role, Mr. Biden said: “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again…. [W]e’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Concluding, Mr. Biden recurred to this “time of testing” — amid “a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis,” any one of which is challenge enough, but “we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had.” Somberly, as he sounded throughout, Mr. Biden closed with the assurance that America will prevail, while subtly offering a contrast to his predecessor’s reign: “And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and of healing. Of greatness and of goodness.” The listener could ponder and contrast Mr. Biden’s reality, that of a small-d democrat, with the reality of his proto-despot predecessor.
I would also note this Inauguration’s silences, allowing for more pondering, notably the service afterward at the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, with the silent laying of the wreath (video here). And, in subtle but powerful reference to the failures of the outgoing administration, the vigil held the evening before at the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall, mourning the 400,000 dead from the coronavirus, marked with oratory kept simple, along with song (“Amazing Grace,” “Hallelujah”), the tolling of bells across America (video here), and silence.
Altogether, it was enough. With the return to truth, poetry, and reality, the keystone for many Americans was moved back into place. The next day, my husband Larry, a sweet man but not one to speak often of his inner psychic weather, said: “Don’t let anybody tell you that one day doesn’t make a difference. Because it does.” Onward with the repair….