“To Restore the Soul and Secure the Future of America Requires the Most Elusive of All Things in a Democracy: ‘Unity’” January 21, 2021
January 20, 2021. Inauguration Day for our 46th President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. A routine ritual that has been performed every four years since George Washington took the oath of office in 1789. In accordance with the words written in our Constitution, Joe Biden, just like all his presidential predecessors, repeated the words written in our Constitution. In front of a small crowd of honored COVID-19 masked guests, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and millions of Americans watching at home or at work, Biden “solemnly swore that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States (U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section.1).” Yes, a routine ritual that has been performed for 232 years.
However, as we all know, this 1/20/2021 swearing in ritual was anything but routine. This inauguration is taking place in the middle of a terrible pandemic that has killed over 400,000 Americans and forced many to lose their jobs and businesses. Not only is our nation’s physical health at stake, but so is our nation’s very democracy. Exactly two weeks ago, on Wednesday 1/06/2021, hundreds of rioters, many of them armed, heard then “President” Donald Trump incite a crowd of thousands in D.C. to go over to the Capitol and “stop the election that had been stolen from him, and take their country back with strength.” The Jan. 6th date was when VP Pence, the Senate, and House were to confirm Biden’s Electoral College victory, normally a routine matter. Trump had been repeating this stolen election big lie since his 11/03/2020 election loss to Biden. This mob climbed the Capitol with ropes, broke windows, and overwhelmed the Capitol Police force. They trashed and desecrated our Capitol, the temple of our democracy, aiming to overthrow Democrat Biden’s 11/03/2020 seven-million plus popular vote and comfortable 306-232 constitutionally required Electoral College tally. The mob, in this attempted coup on our democracy, went looking for Congressmembers and Senators. They were aiming to take them hostage and kill many of them, including VP Pence who had followed the law and refused to overturn Biden’s victory. House and Senate members had to flee for their lives, going into hiding throughout the Capitol. One of the heroes of that day, African American Capitol Police officer and Iraq War veteran Eugene Goodman, potentially saved many lives. He gave mob members the wrong directions to the Senate chamber diverting them while lawmakers could flee. For his actions, Goodman was made acting deputy Senate sergeant-at-arms. He was part of VP Kamala Harris’ official escort to the platform outside the now cleaned up Capitol where she was sworn in (See nytimes.com, 1/20/21, Cochrane, E.). On 1/13/2021, one week before the Biden and Harris’ swearing-in, Trump was impeached by the House for a second time for inciting this mob (nytimes.com, Fandos, 1/13/21). Five people died in this horrible coup, including a Capitol policeman, but without Goodman’s actions and that of other Capitol Police, the toll could have been far worse.
Because of this brazen assault on our democracy, tens of thousands of National Guard troops ringed the Capitol and security for the inaugural was at fever pitch. Biden is facing three mega-crises at once. He has to get vaccines against the COVID-19 pandemic out to millions of Americans as soon as he can, which Trump did not prepare for at all. President Biden is facing mass unemployment because of the pandemic. He will need to have Congress pass $1.9 trillion in relief that he had proposed prior to his inauguration (cnn.com, Collinson & Reston, 1/15/21). This will not be an easy task with many hostile and obstructionist Republicans in a House and Senate narrowly run by Democrats. Biden will need all the experience he obtained from his long career in the Senate and two terms as Obama’s VP to deal with the likes of now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his “Team Red” followers. On 1/20/2021 and for the next several days, Biden will undo many of Trump’s most damaging policies. Moving with an urgency not seen from any other modern president, Biden, according to his advisers, will sign 17 executive orders, memoranda, and proclamations from the Oval Office on Inauguration Day (Shear, M., nytimes.com, 1/20/2021). For starters, Biden will rejoin the Paris agreement climate accords that Trump took the U.S. out of. Biden will have the U.S. immediately enter WHO, the World Health Organization, repeal Trump’s ban against many Muslims traveling to this country, and cancel Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Biden will protect Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. DACA shielded some 700,000 DREAMERS, people who came to this country illegally as children and lived exemplary lives, from deportation. Trump had tried to repeal DACA but had been blocked temporarily by the courts. Many of these former children, now grown adults, were left in limbo by Trump’s DACA repeal (latimes.com, 1/20/21, Halper, E). Biden has issued an order mandating the wearing of masks in federal buildings (cnn.com, 1/20/21). Finally, and most important of all for our democracy, Biden started from the get-go trying to unite our country. Currently, our nation has been the most divided it has ever been since the Civil War.
Biden put much of his well-crafted and confidently spoken inaugural address into trying to bring our divided country together. As he began his inaugural address, Biden said, “This (Inauguration Day 1/20/2021) is America’s Day. This is democracy’s day. Democracy has prevailed (Baker, P., Astor, M., & Kaplan, T., nytimes.com, 1/20/2021).” Translation: after a stormy transition period, including the attempt by Trump’s mob to take the Capitol, our democracy survived. Biden added, “Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now.” In his address, Biden asked for his listeners to observe a moment of silence for the 400,000 plus American corona virus dead. He acknowledged the toll of this pandemic in a way Trump never did (nytimes.com, Baker, Astor, & Kaplan). Biden quickly came to the essence of his speech in this key sentence, “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words and requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: ‘unity (nytimes.com, Baker et al, 1/20/21).’” Biden proclaimed, “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 (nytimes.com, Baker et al).” Biden added, “Politics doesn’t have to 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. Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies (nytimes.com, Baker et al).” Translation: We must have unity in loving our country, preserving democracy, and respecting political differences. However, the lying of Trump, FOX News, and right wing talk show hosts about facts can have fatal consequences.
Biden added an optimistic tone by emphasizing the long arc of history. In his words, “Here we stand, looking out on the great Mall where Dr. King spoke of his dream. Here we stand where 108 years ago at another inaugural (Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 first inaugural), thousands of protestors tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote. And today we mark the swearing in of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change (nytimes.com, Baker et al, 1/20/21).”
Biden’s fine inaugural speech was overseen by his longtime adviser Mike Donilon who will join him in the West Wing. Historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham also helped shape Biden’s inaugural address (cnn.com, Zeleny, Krieg, & Bradner). IMHO, I can hear the words of Meacham in Biden’s call for unity and how times can change.
Jon Ellis Meacham (51) has written some excellent books on American history and is a superb presidential biographer. He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” Chattanooga, Tennessee native Jon Meacham was raised by his paternal grandparents after his parents’ divorce (thesewanneepurple.org, 2/15/14, chattanoogan.com, 10/01/08, newspapers.com, “The Star Herald,” 1/23/03). Meacham became interested in politics when he heard his grandfather discussing local and national issues with friends. In response to a letter he sent to President-elect Ronald Reagan, Meacham received an invitation to his 1981 inauguration (“The Star Herald,” 1/23/03). While in high school, Meacham developed an interest in the civil rights movement (Cass, 2/05/01, “The Tennessean”). In 1991, Meacham graduated salutatorian from Sewanee: The University of the South with a BA in English literature summa cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa (“The Tennessean,” 10/11/07). After college, Meacham worked at “The Chattanooga Times,” and later moved to D.C. to co-edit the “Washington Monthly.” He worked for “Newsweek,” and in 2006, became its Editor-in-Chief of print an online formats (“The Star Herald,” 1/23/03, “The Tennessean,” 10/11/07, nytimes.com, Abramson, 11/02/12). He contributes to the NY Times Book Review, Time Magazine, and the Washington Post. Meacham was an Executive Vice President at Random House (Kelly,virginia.edu, 1/23/14, huffpost.com, Adweek, 11/11/10). He is a professor at Vanderbilt University(“Tennessee Tribune,” 11/08/19, msnbc.com, 3/03/16).
Meacham grew up on Missionary Ridge, the key Civil War battlefield, where Union troops won the fight to take Chattanooga by charging up the hills under heavy fire. Eighteen-year-old Arthur MacArthur, Jr., the future father of WWII and Korean War general Douglas MacArthur won the Congressional Medal of Honor there and this Union victory put General Sherman in position to capture Atlanta (National Geographic, Atlas Of The Civil War). As late as the 1970’s and 1980’s, Meacham could still find minie balls in his yard left from the battle of Missionary Ridge. When asked to comment about the terrible events that took place in Charlottesville, VA in 8/2017, Meacham decided to write one of the most powerful books I have ever read, his 2018 “The Soul of America, The Battle For Our Better Angels.” In this book, Meacham indicated that the climate of partisan fury under Trump was not new and that what Pres. Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” have repeatedly won the day despite dark and ugly chapters in our nation’s history. In this book, Meacham encouraged Americans to pay attention to political news, and most importantly to vote. He called the casting of ballots “foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.”
Meacham was selected to be H.W. Bush’s official biographer and his 2015 book “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” was an excellent one. He gave eulogies for both H.W. and his wife Barbara Bush in 2018 (nytimes.com, Tackett, 12/04/18). His 2003 book about FDR and Churchill, “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship” is a detailed description of how those two leaders led us to WWII victory. Meacham wrote with Tim McGraw about the stirring songs that made America (“Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation”).
Meacham has been strongly critical of Trump. In a 2018 NY Times article, he compared Trump to Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who preached radio sermons hostile to FDR and full of anti-Semitism. Meacham unfavorably contrasted Trump’s manner of speaking to that of FDR (nytimes.com, Meacham, 5/03/18). Meacham endorsed Biden for President and was asked to speak at the 2020 Democratic Convention on the Soul of America. In endorsing Biden, Meacham stated, “From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, we’re at our best when we build bridges, not walls (Hains, T., realclearpolitics.com, 8/20/20).”
Biden’s inaugural address was not the first speech Meacham worked on for him. Meacham was part of a team that helped write Biden’s convention acceptance speech and other speeches Biden gave during the 2020 election campaign (Karni, A., 11/09/20, nytimes.com). A President who picks good advisers and speechwriters and listens to them is often successful. Biden’s Cabinet and other personnel appointments have been excellent. With Jon Meacham as one of his key speechwriters, Biden has picked one historical and wordsmith star.