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Philip Collins: Biden brought the daylight

Thursday 21 January 2021

A former prime ministerial speechwriter assesses the president’s Inaugural Address, which may have lacked a strong central idea – but struck the right tone


Biden: Chief Justice Roberts, Vice-President Harris, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, Leader McConnell, Vice-President Pence. My distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, 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 and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed. So now on this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundations, 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.

The list of names at the start is more than an introduction, more than a formality and more than a preamble. To be able to name Leader McConnell and Vice-President Pence, senior representatives of the defeated Republican party, dramatises the speech’s governing idea – unity above politics – right at the start. In any other year this would indeed be a formality. But not this year.

In a sense, all inaugural speeches are the same, for a good reason. They are ritualistic, the way in which America enacts its transfer of power. The inaugural speech is therefore necessarily self-referential; its main theme is always the democratic ritual itself. Yet that does not make this section at all perfunctory or even standard. In fact, for all its familiarity it is rather old-fashioned. The reminder that democracy is fragile was a staple of the early inaugural speeches but not something that any living President felt the need to say.

The template for this speech takes us right back to the origins of the republic. In January 1801, Thomas Jefferson – of whom there are echoes throughout this script – spoke of his hope that the fledgling democracy could overcome its weaknesses and survive. It is sobering that, in 2021, that is the ethos of an inaugural speech once again. On both occasions the defeated candidate – John Adams and then Donald Trump – had churlishly left Washington before the inauguration.

Biden: A once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as in all of World War Two. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat. To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and secure the future of America – requires so much more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: unity. Unity. In another January on New Year’s Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, ‘If my name ever goes down in history, it’ll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.’ My whole soul is in it. Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this.

The litany of problems is so concisely and effectively done that the answer, when it arrives, sounds inadequate. It will take more than unity to solve all this and unity is, in any case, a fond hope in a divided nation. No amount of healing presidential rhetoric can gainsay the fact that 80 per cent of Democrats think the Republican party has been taken over by racists, and the same percentage of Republicans think the Democrats have been infiltrated by socialists. This speech is taking place in a city in which more troops have been deployed to keep the peace than America currently has on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

Every president says much the same. George H.W. Bush sought a “kinder, gentler nation”, Bill Clinton pledged to be a “repairer of the breach”, George W. Bush said “I want to change the tone of Washington,” and Barack Obama insisted, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America”. All to no avail, which shows that unity, though pleasing enough to hear, is a weak option as the central thread of a speech. There is a better option to come in the following passage.

Biden: And so today, at this time in this place, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics need not 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 a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured. My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this. And, I believe America is so much better than this. Just look around. Here we stand, in the shadow of a Capitol dome that was completed amid the Civil War, when the union itself hung in the balance. Yet we endured and we prevailed. Here we stand looking out to the great Mall where Dr King spoke of his dream. Here we stand, where 108 years ago at another inaugural, thousands of protesters tried to block brave women from marching for the right to vote. Today, we mark the swearing-in of the first woman in American history elected to national office – Vice-President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change. Here we stand across the Potomac from Arlington National Cemetery, where heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion rest in eternal peace. And here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. That did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever…. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peacefully, within the guardrails of our democracy, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion…. Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders – leaders who are pledged to honour our Constitution to protect our nation – to defend the truth and defeat the lies.

A perfectly crafted speech should have a single governing idea, which organises the material. There can be digressions and deepening, but the main idea should run throughout. That central theme seems to be “unity,” but the many variations on that theme in this speech all add up to so many platitudes.

This passage contains the core of the more difficult, and much better, speech that Joe Biden might have given. A democracy will never, in truth, be wholly united. It will never have many common objects of its love, to use the line that Biden took from St Augustine. Arguably, it ought not to be united. Argument is the essence of democracy and there would be no rhetoric without it. The point is that the disagreement should be civil and that the democratic conversation should be predicated on public truths. The serious charge against the previous president, which is levelled in this passage even though Trump is not named, is that he sponsored civil discord and uncivil strife and that he did so by polluting the public realm with untruth.

The themes of civil argument and truth leads naturally out of the reference to Martin Luther King to the celebration of the first woman to hold the office of Vice-President to another Abraham Lincoln reference in the last words here. This is what the speech should have been about. This would have been a bolder choice for the organising idea. This is the best part of the speech, precisely because there is a sharp critique and a distinction of genuine importance – between truth and falsehood – is being invoked.

Biden: This is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis. America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities. Now we must step up. All of us. It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And, this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children? I believe we must and I believe we will. And when we do, we will write the next great chapter in the American story.

This is quite a list of problems to solve: truth, equity, climate change, racism and the virus. And then the capacity for America to do good in the world. This was not a speech of substantive policy, but it did signal that Biden plans to reverse Trump’s isolationism. He refers frequently to a better world, not just a better America. John F. Kennedy is the only President to make the inaugural a foreign policy speech – “ask not what your country can do for you…” actually makes hardly any sense in that context, despite its fame – and Biden does nothing other than signal a desire to repair alliances. Again, for most observers, that will be enough. His main objective in this speech is to be precisely like all his predecessors except one. This is a speech to restore the constitutional and proprietorial status quo ante. It plays the two signature tunes of American politics – healing in the present and optimism for the future.

The intriguing line here, though, is that “this is a time for boldness”. Is it? Boldness leads back away from healing towards division. Maybe this is the time to go slow, to negotiate, to persuade before acting. Yet the signing of a flurry of executive orders in the president’s first hours suggests boldness may be his intention. In this buried line, the contradiction of the speech, the fault of line of American society, can be glimpsed. We want to unite but I intend to be bold, inevitably in a way you dislike, which therefore breaks the temporary truce in our division. Negotiating this division is what politics is for and this is why a stronger stress on the sacred nature of the institutions – the only shared belief you can hope for in a thriving democracy – might have been a stronger theme in this address.

Biden: My fellow Americans, I close today where I began, with a sacred oath. Before God and all of you I give you my word. I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution, I will defend our democracy. I will defend America. I will give my all in your service thinking not of power, but of possibilities. Not of personal interest, but of public good. And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and healing. Of greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us. The story that inspires us. The story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. That democracy and hope, truth and justice, did not die on our watch but thrived. That our America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world. That is what we owe our forebearers, one another, and generations to follow. So, with purpose and resolve we turn to those tasks of our time. Sustained by faith. Driven by conviction. And, devoted to one another and to this country we love with all our hearts. May God bless America and God protect our troops.

The link between politics and religion was severed in British political rhetoric by the Great War, but it remains strong in America. The greatest of all American speeches – King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ – connects American imagery to assemble biblical cadences. By the time he gets to the “God bless America” that ends every speech, Biden has already quoted the Bible to say that “weeping may endure for a night, joy cometh in the morning”. He has stopped and asked his audience – smaller, in the circumstances, than usual – to say a silent prayer for the victims of coronavirus. The oath, he says, is sacred. We are sustained by faith. His whole soul is in this. In a secular country, which makes a lot of its split of church and state, you can always hear the puritan legacy in the rhetoric. John Winthrop, the Englishman who coined the phrase, “the shining city on the hill,” which has been used by many presidents but Ronald Reagan above all, was a clergyman. 

The future of America is often discussed by its presidents as if it were following a preordained destiny. When Jefferson said it in 1801 it sounded like a hope for the future and it was unclear whether the promise could be redeemed. When Biden says it in 2021 it sounds like a man apologising for what his nation has become but then reinstating the noble dream on which it is based. Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that America was a land made in broad daylight. This was a speech, as Biden says in this final passage, “of light, not darkness”. Every president but one says it. We really needed to hear it from this president.