Today was an inauguration like no other: Less grand in scale than we are used to seeing; less grandiose than we are used to hearing.
It was less, but at the same time and somehow, confoundingly and comforting, more. It was perfect for these far-from-perfect times.
The 46th President of the United States, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., took his oath of office surrounded by more security than spectators. We were struck by the very fabric of the day — 20,000 flags on the National Mall commemorating lives lost to COVID-19; masks worn by those attending, to protect against the risk of COVID-19; the human wall of camouflage shielding the perimeter from other threats; and the weary yet enduring cloth of our Constitution.
President Biden delivered a fine and fitting speech. He stood against a winter sky and before the tearful eyes of a hurting, hopeful nation. He reminded us of what we’ve endured and what we are capable of — together.
Like Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez before him, he hit all the right notes. Unlike the divas, he stuck to a human octave, and scales we can relate to and rally for: Unity. Honesty. Resiliency. The foundation and principles of our republic.
There were resonating refrains, quotable take-aways such as:
“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.”
“We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibility.”
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew. America has risen to the challenge.”
It felt right when Garth Brooks urged us to share a healing hymn and sing along. We know the words by now, and the melody and the need to raise voice. It’s a hymn we lift after loss, and we’ve lost so much, so many and our very way.
“‘Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”
Lead us home.
That is exactly what we needed to hear today — and what President Biden delivered. Rhetorical breadcrumbs and a beacon to lead us home — whatever that might look like and wherever that might be. He offered safe passage in a time of peril and partisanship.
President Biden’s words today weren’t especially lofty. They were more calming than a call to action, more soothing than moving. They were the healing balm and ballast we needed, without exactly knowing that is what we craved.
It was a perfect speech for these imperfect times: Human and humane, speaking to honesty, the tide of history and the help we need and give and are ever grateful for. It was heartfelt, no malarkey and homeward bound via the Amtrak train.
And isn’t that a welcome, refreshing tip of the hat to the day? A speech not written to rub shoulders against the celebrated salutations of presidents past, but to shoulder the inelegant burdens of the day? To speak in prose and practicality — and entrust the poetry to Amanda Gorman?
President Biden and his team did so much right rhetorically and metaphorically. They used alliteration, repetition, statistics framed in relatable context, references to scripture, history, recent events and, repeatedly and reverently, our Constitution.
They let Joe be Joe, employing familiar touchpoints like “Here’s the thing …”, “Look, folks …” and “As my mother would say …” He didn’t need to be the oh-so-eloquent Obama — having his fist bump and faith was enough.
And there were lovely moments, some orchestrated, some spontaneous: The field of flags. The celebration of ‘firsts’: first female, first Black and first Asian-American Vice President Kamala Harris sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. A brief swirl of snow against a sunny blue sky. National Guardsmen bowing their heads. Senator Bernie Sanders’ mittens. The songs and prayers and poems. Vice President Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff standing on the steps of the Capitol, waving goodbye to a gracious Mike and Karen Pence.
Sometimes the images we see are as important as the words we hear, and inaugural addresses are all about staging and spectacle, optics and oratory. Today was no exception. Organizers pulled off a tremendous feat in the midst of a global pandemic … a recalcitrant outgoing administration … and recent and very real security threats.
We didn’t need a great speech today. We needed goodness. A decent speech to lift us from indecent times. We needed — and received — hope, healing and the light and grace to find our way home.
“How sweet the sound.”