“I thought this was the best inaugural address I ever heard,” said Chris Wallace to a dour Fox News audience this afternoon. It was a fine speech, but let’s be real: Has any president ever had an easier lay-up for his inauguration than Biden had today? He was sworn in two weeks after a domestic terror attack on the Capitol, amid a pandemic that’s killed 400,000 people and counting, followed by a months-long half-assed coup attempt. The man he’s replacing was linked directly to all three of those developments.
All he had to do today was sound normal and competent and conciliatory by contrast. And conveniently for Joe, normalcy and competence and conciliation were the three pillars of his campaign message, to the extent he had any campaign message at all. He was perfectly teed up for the moment. I must have seen a dozen people tweet while he was being sworn in that they could finally “exhale,” no longer needing to worry about whether Trump would do something weird with the military or pull one last election gambit in his final days.
He could have gotten up there and started rambling like Grandpa Simpson about how tying an onion to one’s belt was the fashion when he was a kid and 75 percent of the country would have been like, “Isn’t this great? I could listen to him babble all day!” The transcript is here. Key bit:
On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause…
And so today at this time in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another see one another, show respect to one another. 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…
To all those who supported our campaign, I’m humbled by the faith you’ve placed in us. To all those who did not support us, let me say this. Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent, peaceably, the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength.
Yet hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you, I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans. And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did…
We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life. There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you.
I’m too pessimistic to believe that this country, in its advanced state of civic decay, is capable of what he’s asking. But it’s nice to have a “unity” message coming from the top, even if it’s destined to evaporate on contact with Biden’s policy agenda in Congress.
There was one glaringly false note in the speech. Early on, Biden said that “we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries.” There was no “peaceful transfer of power” this time. The fact that no one died today, which was a serious enough concern to warrant deploying thousands of troops, doesn’t make the process “peaceful.” That’s a canard that we like to cite on Inauguration Day to flatter ourselves about our presidential transitions, as if there’s something uniquely American about one administration making way for another without bloodshed. It’s not unique; other nations have done it for many years. But the canard is especially irritating this year, two weeks after a cop was murdered at the Capitol and major political figures, including the former vice president of the United States, barely escaped a mob attack with their lives because Trump just couldn’t accept that he’d lost.
Even if the Capitol attack had never happened, it’d be ludicrous to say after the last two months that power was transferred “peacefully.” Trump pulled every lever he could, legal or otherwise, to undo the election or convince supporters that Biden’s presidency would be illegitimate even if he did end up being sworn in. Nothing peaceful about that. It’s a declaration of perpetual war, just a cold war instead of a hot one. The peaceful transfer of power isn’t worth much if the country you’re left with afterward is effectively ungovernable.
You can watch Wallace’s praise for Biden’s speech here, by the way. “He said that there is truth and there are lies, lies that are told for power and lies that are told for profit,” Wallace pointed out. “I think it was a call to all of us, whether it’s us on the air, on cable or broadcast, whether it’s us on social media, on our Twitter accounts, understanding that we have to deal from facts, from the truth, to hear each other out, as he said, a right to disagree, but not a right to violence.” Media people need to tell the truth instead of lie for profit, huh? I wonder whom he had in mind when he said that.