Words matter — they always matter.
Contrary to that old childhood rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me,” in recent weeks, if not over the past four years, America has witnessed the duality that words can have — either to build up or to tear down.
For Joseph R. Biden Jr., in delivering his inaugural address on Wednesday, he, perhaps more than anyone else, realized the immense importance of the words he used and the message he shared.
The ceremony would mark 244 years of our democracy and the 59th inauguration of the president of the United States.
Even more, the nation’s 46th president would need to make the best of his first opportunity to offer his plan for healing to a nation divided by racism, partisanship and the vestiges of a litany of divisive language and often questionable decisions that will mark the legacy of former President Donald J. Trump forever.
As a sign of the time, the National Mall would be bereft of people. Thousands of American flags blowing in the wind on a blustery day of snow flurries in the District would stand on the grounds historically packed with thousands of citizens, politicians and preachers, members of the media, friends — even children, too young to understand the gravity of the moment.
As a sign of the times, there would be no crowd of cheering supporters welcoming President Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris — the first woman and first woman of color to ever hold the venerable seat.
It should be noted that U.S. Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, whose bravery in the wake of an unprecedented attack by pro-Trump insurrectionists on Jan. 6 has been reported by The Washington Informer, accompanied Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff.
As a sign of the times, given the recent attacks on the U.S. Capitol, many of the participants on the dais with the president would reportedly wear body armor — all of them wearing masks as a means of protecting themselves from a still deadly coronavirus health pandemic.
Biden continues along a path that only 39 other Americans have traveled before: to deliver a presidential inaugural address. His theme, “American United,” continued the essential message of his campaign: unity over division.
Facing the backdrop of a global pandemic, racial tensions and the second impeachment of his predecessor, the hope, according to Biden’s inaugural committee, was that his words would spark “the beginning of a new national journey that restores the soul of America, brings the country together and creates a path to a brighter future.”
Words from Previous Commanders in Chief
America has become accustomed to hearing inaugural addresses that use well-known phrases, punctuated with religious undertones and without unnecessary hyperboles. Biden would follow this path, realizing, as he would say, that his first job as president remains to heal the nation.
From the inaugural addresses of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War to Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression — from George W. Bush in those days following 9/11 and President Obama in a recession that nearly derailed and destroyed the nation — there have been many presidents who have taken office in the midst of a tumultuous era.
Biden joins these presidents of the past. Still, the devout Catholic and longtime resident of Delaware, has been in public service for more than 50 years, including serving in the U.S. Senate and as vice president. His address reflected his experience in tackling tough situations — those he had faced both professionally and personally.
Consider these unforgettable remarks from past inaugural addresses.
Thomas Jefferson (1801): “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.”
Abraham Lincoln (1861): “I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Abraham Lincoln (1865): “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.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933): “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless. unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
John F. Kennedy (1961): “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Ronald Reagan (1981): “The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Biden: We Must ‘Open Our Souls Instead of Hardening Our Hearts’
After taking the oath of office, the bells of Howard University tolled 49 times as the music from the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” could be heard softly in the background.
And then, the 46th president of the United States stood before the nation and the world.
“This is America’s day — this is democracy day. A day of history and resolve. We celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause. The will of the people has been heard and heeded. We learned again that democracy is fragile, precious — and it has prevailed,” Biden said.
“As we look ahead, restless, bold and optimistic, and set our sights on a nation we can and must be, I thank my predecessors from both parties from the bottom of my heart. Each of those patriots, including President Carter who could not be here with us today, have taken that oath — that we seek a more perfect union.”
“We have come so far but we have so much farther to go — much to repair, restore, build, heal and gain. Few have found the times to be more challenging than what is before us now. In one year, we have lost more people than we did during World War II. We must confront this virus and other challenges and we will confront and defeat them.”
“I know the forces that divide us are deep and real but they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the reality of racism, nativism, fear and demonization that have torn us apart.”
“Through struggles and setbacks, we have always prevailed. History, faith and reason show the way forward where we can see each other not as adversaries but neighbors. Without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No nation but only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of chaos and challenge and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”
“If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail. Let’s start afresh. Let’s begin to listen to one another, see one another, show respect toward one another. Politics does not have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
“We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated — even manufactured. Here we stand where a riotous mob thought they could stop the will of the people. It did not happen; it will not happen. It will not happen today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
“To those who did not support our campaign, hear me out. As we move forward, if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy, that’s America. But this disagreement must not lead to disunion. I will be the president for all Americans. And I promise I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as those who did.”
“St. Augustine wrote that the people were a multitude of the common objects of their love. What are the common objects that define Americans? Opportunity, dignity, respect, honor and the truth. The past few weeks have taught us there are lies — lies told for profit and power. But we are elected to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
“Many of my fellow Americans face the future in fear and trepidation — fear about their jobs, healthcare, their families and what will come next. But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who do not look like you, who do not worship like you. We must end this uncivil war. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we are willing, like my momma said, to stand in another person’s shoes. Because in life there’s no accounting for what fate will deal you.”
“We are going to need each other to persevere in this dark winter as we enter what may be the deadliest phase of this virus. We must enter it as one nation. As the Bible says, ‘weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.’”
“The world is watching us today. Here’s my message for those beyond our borders. America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage once again not to meet yesterday’s challenges but today’s and tomorrow’s. And we will lead by the power of our example.”
It’s time for boldness for there’s so much to do. We will be judged by how we resolve the cascading problems of this era. We will meet our obligations — I believe we will. And then we’ll write the next great chapter in the history of the United States. When our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say we did our best to heal this broken land,” Biden said.
Postscript: And a Child Shall Lead Them
As a fitting postscript, Biden’s message would be paralleled and confirmed by an African-American youth from California.
Amanda Gorman, 22, stepped into the national spotlight as the youngest inaugural poet laureate in U.S. history. Gorman’s work focuses on issues of oppression, feminism, race and marginalization as well as the African diaspora.
The young poet delivered a spoken word piece, ‘The Hill We Climb,’ saying, “being American is more than the pride we inherit — it’s the past we step into and how we repair it … and [while we once doubted the future], now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”