To put Joe Biden’s inaugural address into perspective it might help to think back to Clinton’s or Eisenhower’s second, or Coolidge’s or James Buchanan’s first and only. But you can’t remember them and neither can I, because they were sonorous snorefests quickly forgotten and it didn’t matter. Except it did with Buchanan, who then watched the Civil War approach like a deer in the headlights.
America’s 15th president desperately needed to find inspiration and follow through and didn’t. Instead he churned out 2823 words of fatuous optimism that might offer an ominous parallel for Biden.
Arguably William Henry Harrison set the worst precedent, droning on bare-headed on a blustery March day until he caught pneumonia and died. And while people remember Kennedy’s inaugural it’s mostly for soaring rhetoric unsupported by sober planning and unmatched by real achievement.
By contrast they remember FDR’s first for offering inspiration as a prelude to a program that, while still controversial, was certainly dramatic. His famous “the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself” is debatable. But it resonates down through the years because had a unifying effect on a nation terrified of the Great Depression, and at a level far deeper than policy, where disagreements persisted.
Biden was free instead to drop rhetorical sludge down a historical well if he wanted, complete with pseudo-inspirational lines as hackneyed in conception as in delivery. Many presidents served with distinction without any quotable inaugural words, while others said fine things but did not achieve them, and still others mumbled through the inaugural then stumbled through the White House.
Still, the Inaugural on my mind before Biden spoke, and afterward in a different way, was Lincoln’s second.
Delivered at a time of appalling crisis even by the standards of American public life, it was poetic and profound. And while NBC may gush that “Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman steals the show” and claim “the nation’s youngest inaugural poet, captivated the nation with her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’”, it actually showed how far our standards have fallen. It was a pedestrian speech, lacking metre or grace, of which nobody will ever remember or quote a single line.
If you want poetry, try FDR’s “the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side”. Or Lincoln’s “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
His famous 1865 oration was just 701 words long, shorter than an average newspaper column and deeper than most books. And containing such commendable modest frankness as “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” No bluster, hyperbole or vainglory.
Given that progress, he was not addressing the crisis of a war by then grinding toward a predictable Union victory. His eye was on the far more challenging crisis of reconciliation. As Biden’s presumably was.
Lincoln noted of the combatants: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” And added pointedly: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” but immediately continued “but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”
Note the balance, depth, sympathy. Even when invoking the wrath of God. “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove… He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came”.
Then he finds a note of uplift that is neither saccharine nor insincere: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Such is the stuff of poetry, and prophecy. But what then is to be done? He immediately concluded with stunning brevity and clarity: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Alas, Lincoln did not live to implement this vision. Instead the nation fell into the hands of men consumed by malice, on both sides of the Reconstruction debate, sowing the seeds of another century and more of turmoil and hatred.
As for Biden, he does not face a crisis comparable to the Civil War. At least I hope not. But he missed that note of malice toward none and charity for all and indeed did not seem to reach for it.
Did he even reread Lincoln’s words before delivering his own? He churned out cliches about unity, hope and America. But in his specifics he pointed the finger of blame one way only. He gloated.
I do not complain of his declared intent to pursue his program. And I acknowledge his ritual nod to the fact that in a democracy not everyone will agree. But he had to state frankly that the divisions in America run in both directions, acknowledge progressive as well as reactionary hatred and explicitly condemn violence from left as well as right.
It would also have been helpful graciously to acknowledge some of Trump’s achievements, for instance in the Middle East. But Biden is too narrow, ordinary and partisan. When he spoke of the victory of democracy, he meant not a peaceful election but his party’s triumph despite the villains opposite.
It may not matter. It was just a moment in time, as forgettable as many others, and if he governs well this boilerplate will be forgotten, as it will if he governs poorly. But had he risen to the occasion, the 46th president might have spoken words long remembered for starting the healing process.
If things go very wrong, it may be remembered instead that he did not try.