As we watched, the evening before the inauguration, the memorial service for the lives of those lost to the pandemic, my overwhelming feeling was, “We can breathe again.” There was dignity, decorum, and decency. What a relief. It wasn’t all about one person (whose name shall not be mentioned). It wasn’t being politicized. It was about something more, something greater.
As we watched the inauguration itself I continued to feel an enormous sense of relief, as well as rejoicing, but something else too. We are a nation that has truly been humbled. As I noted in a recent blog, being humbled is something that happens to you. It’s not like practicing humility, which is something we try (or not) to do. Humbled is done to you.
And we have been humbled. We have been humbled by the pandemic, our losses, and the failure to manage it better.
We have been humbled by the insurrection of two weeks ago. What “can’t happen here,” did happen here. Right where the inauguration itself now took place. Where the bunting of American flags hung on the west face of the Capitol, a mob mounted the barricades exactly two weeks ago.
As a consequence of those events, we were humbled today by an additional factor, the need for so many troops and so much security, such that the Capitol was turned into a “fortress,” in the words of a news reporter. And, finally, we had been humbled by the Trump presidency itself, by how close we had come to a subversion of our institutions and of our collective sanity.
Our humbling has, however, had positive effects.
I sensed in this inauguration less self-congratulation and more acknowledgement of the need for help from beyond ourselves. The prayers really meant something. I sensed that we are not taking democracy and our institutions for granted in the ways that we have for some time, perhaps a long time. I sensed that our inveterate American optimism has been tempered, chastened even, by realism.
That would be how I would describe President Biden’s speech, which I thought quite good. He was hopeful and encouraging, but he was also realistic. He enumerated our challenges. But, perhaps more important, he was realistic about a reality described by a new term we’ve learned in recent weeks, “the insider threat.” He named domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and the culture of lies and deception as real and as our adversaries. The unity he called for was not sentimental or naive. There are lines we must not cross. Actions we will not tolerate. Mercy must be held in tension with justice. Good for him.
“Unity” was his theme. He acknowledged that some may think, “unity is a foolish fantasy.” But this appeal has a context. For four plus years we have lived with a arch-master of division, a person who used truly everything to divide us from and against one another. Unity is easier to talk about than to achieve, but we now know the reality and cost of toxic and bitter divisiveness in ways we haven’t before. “Our uncivil war must end.” It was one of Joe’s best lines.
There were many excellent moments. In fact, I’d say that every step of the whole dance came off well and proved impressive. From old Father O’Donovan’s opening prayer, to Republican Senator Roy Blount’s quotation of one of President Reagan’s best lines (“what we do today is both commonplace and miraculous”), to Lady Gaga’s heartfelt rendition of the national anthem, to 22-year-old Amanda Gorman’s beautiful and beautifully gestured poem, to Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff’s escorting of Mike and Karen Pence to their car.
A word about Pence. It couldn’t have been easy for him to be there. But he was. Good for him. He has made some tough calls in recent weeks. They have been the right ones. They have been brave ones.
We heard many times about Kamala Harris’ ground-breaking — her racial background, first woman Vice-President. It’s a big deal. But let me add a good word for her husband, Doug Emhoff, the first “second gentleman.” I noted his non-verbals during the prayers, speeches, and remarks. He was engaged, feeling it. He too is breaking new ground and appears to be doing it very well.
Hope needs always to be held in tension with realism, which it was today. An inauguration contains the word augur, a term for a Roman priest who read the future by noting the flight of birds. Biden’s big day augurs well for the future.