“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” Franklin Roosevelt had said in his 1933 inaugural, when democracy was very much in doubt, though for different reasons than it had been in the past few years. The distrust lifted this morning, not coincidentally as that 747 lifted off from Joint Base Andrews, heading, unfortunately for us, to Florida. We can trust in this experiment again, with a man made for the moment as its president.
Joe Biden’s words reflected the character of the most unaffected president since Harry Truman. He was in his element, the first-person singular as absent from his speech as it had been the relentless badgering of the last four years, when it displaced everything from empathy to grace to national purpose. “I must put the interest of America first,” words spoken even by Richard Nixon on his last day in the White House, were as foreign to the last president as his promiscuous treacheries in defense of his dominion.
That’s what we had missed these four years: the American we, that invocation of unity Biden called “the most elusive of all things in a democracy.” Elusive, but no less imperative, “if only we’re brave enough to see it,” in the poet laureate’s penultimate verse. If Biden invoked the first person, it was always in service of national purpose at a time comparable only with 1933. I’d expected the Biden speech to have a few things in common with FDR’s first inaugural in March 1933, and it was, in form and content, though Biden’s was far less martial than FDR’s, who made allusions to a war on the Depression at least five times in his speech. The last thing we need now is more language of war.
Neither men wasted time on formalities to get to the heart of the matter in their very first lines. Democracy itself was in peril in 1933 as it was in the last few years, though the culprits in 1933 were the speculators and financial overlords whose “callous and selfish wrongdoing,” as FDR called it, had crashed the nation’s economic power. So had lies, then as now. We remember the 1933 inaugural for one of the most famous phrases in the American liturgy: “The only thing we have to fear is–fear itself.” But it was the following clauses that put the line in its proper context: “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.”
By 1933 the American people had been lied to for years, not with the malice and ferocity of the last four, but with that indulgence for a mythical and reckless faith in a bankrupt system that allowed Herbert Hoover to say even after the crash of ‘29 that “the fundamental business of the country… is on a sound and prosperous basis” (words George W. Bush would repeat almost word for word in 2008 as the economy was collapsing: “our economy is structurally sound.”) There’s been many lies about the economy in recent years, but the crisis was more political as the democratic foundations frayed from the weight of fabrications and fascist tactics.
“We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” Biden said, returning to the theme later in the speech with some of the more important words of this inaugural: “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.”
Biden standing where he stood was a victory to that end, but an incomplete one in a country where 72 million people might still find succor in the language of “American carnage” spoken just four years ago where Biden stood. Biden took a moment of silence for the real carnage of the last four years–the last one year, actually: the 400,000 Americans, a fifth of the world’s total, lost to covid. Many of them, perhaps a majority, were needlessly lost to the sleaze and incompetence of the administration just ended.
In 1933 FDR had appealed to “the policy of the good neighbor,” calling for “this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” Biden, one of whose speechwriters is the historian Jon Meacham (The Soul of America, American Gospel, Franklin and Winston), made a similar appeal, adapted to the age of shout-show and social media vitriol: “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.” When he said his “whole soul is in this” after invoking Lincoln, I thought he was going to refer to defeating the pandemic. But no. He was referring to unity. Just as well. The pandemic won’t be defeated with disunion.
There was a silencing of ideology in the Biden speech, if not of partisanship. It’s not unusual in inaugurals ever since Jefferson’s famous “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” also in a year when most had doubted the republic would see a peaceful transfer of power. The ideal doesn’t usually last. George W. Bush had called for civility and compassion in his first inaugural in 2001, then embraced partisanship as total war and birthed what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” a dressing up of lies that now seems quaint compared to Trump’s documented 30,000 lies and 54,000 words of insults. So the era of good feelings may not outlast the evening, though Biden’s age and sorrows seem to have left him with few of the serrated edges of partisanship.
We can always hope. “If only we’re brave enough to see it,” the laureate had said, before finishing on that line: “If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
And who was that Amada Gorman, that 22-year-old poet laureate and wonder daughter of a single mother in her red halo and hip hop cadences, that stuttering beacon upon the hill she climbed in her sunshine-yellow jacket who not only, finally, answered Faulkner’s imprisoning line (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he’d said in Requiem, to which she answered with liberating rebirth at high noon today, “Because being American is more than a pride we inherit/it’s the past we step into/and how we repair it”), that youngest of poet laureates who not only outright upstaged the previous inaugural gifts of Robert Frost (not the most insurmountable task ) and Maya Angelou, but who upstaged even President Biden’s call for restoration and renewal of this American experiment so brutally suspended for the second quadrennial nightmare in 232 years?
It isn’t who was she. It is who she is: Gorman is the unvanquished voice of the American we idealize, at once the best and worst of the didactic and poetic, the possible and the impossibly scaled in this country of the “battered and beautiful.” Her poem won’t rank with Milton and Hughes in academic anthologies but as words that seize up the moment like no other, like Zola’s “J’accuse!” in 1898. It was far from his best work. Yet it was Zola at his best when France’s internal demons needed it most. Gorman asked in “The Hill We Climb” the same question we’ve been asking ourselves, and really not just the past four years: “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade,” in this “nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished”?
She diagnosed the culminating insurgency of two weeks ago in imagery almost too lyrical, considering the still-hanging image of a noose over Congress: “We’ve seen a forest 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.” She then channeled Woodie Guthrie with that wonderful inflection “from my bronze-pounded chest”: “We will raise this wounded world/into a wondrous one/we will rise from the gold-limned 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 sun-baked South/We will build, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation/and every corner called our country…”
Biden’s knack for thematic harmony in his choice of speakers and performers is the unmistakable parallel to his broader call for unity: By then Jennifer Lopez had wedded Guthrie’s song with “America the Beautiful” (and her Spanish injection of the last lines of the Pledge of Allegiance), and Biden had delivered what was supposed to be the speech of the day. It very well could have been, had Gorman not followed it. But she did: a beacon of the hope ahead.
I was so damned moved. This, I kept thinking, is why I became American, why today felt less like exile and more like home again.