The early drafts of John F Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, written by Ted Sorensen, bear the scribbles of the president himself. “Read the other presidential inaugurals,” Kennedy advises his speechwriter and counsellor, and “avoid pessimism and partisanship”. It is a recipe for the ages and it is especially good advice right now as Joe Biden and his writers contemplate the contents of an important inaugural address on 20 January.
There is, among the jewels, a great deal of dross in the history of the inaugural address. Most of them are forgotten and most of those justly so. Yet although they vary in quality, the inaugural addresses do have an extraordinary thematic identity. They are almost all about the capacity of America, the need for unity and the solemn virtues of the democratic process.
All of them, that is, except one. The inaugural address should not be a campaign speech. It should not be a list of legislative priorities, which find their place in the State of the Union. It should not be a projection of individual charisma or an occasion for the settling of scores. In January 2017 President Trump broke all those conventions. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said. In fact, it started, and it is Joe Biden’s job to put a stop to it.
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The template for Biden takes us almost all the way back to the beginning of the republic, to its first peaceful transfer of power. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson won a bitterly contested election against the Federalist incumbent, John Adams. Jefferson had accused Adams of being pro-English for trying to get his son married off to one of King George III’s daughters. Adams countered by accusing Jefferson of being an atheist vivisectionist who would introduce a reign of terror along the lines of the French Revolution he so admired. Trump and Biden come on like old friends next to those two.
The festivities in 1801 were spartan, as they will be in 2021. There was no grand parade of the sort Adams had enjoyed. Jefferson dressed as a plain citizen and eschewed an inaugural ball. After his speech the new president walked back to his lodging house and stood in line for dinner.
In 2021, the importance of Covid protocols and the increased security after the Trump-inspired riots means that attendance will be strictly limited. There will be no inaugural parade on Pennsylvania Avenue after the speech; the new president will do a procession around a single city block with every branch of the military, to dramatise a peaceful transfer. There will be one more echo of long ago. In 1801 Adams was nowhere to be seen. He had churlishly left town before Jefferson spoke.
Yet the similarity that counts should be rhetorical. Jefferson’s words in 1801 set the standard for the healing inauguration. “We have called by different names,” he said, “brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Time and again in the canon of the inaugural address, US presidents have returned to the theme of healing. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Abraham Lincoln in 1861, on the brink of the Civil War. In 1865, even though his supporters encouraged him to disparage a Confederacy that was on the verge of defeat, Lincoln spoke instead “with malice toward none, with charity for all”.
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In the circumstances it would be uplifting to hear Biden pay tribute, by invoking Jefferson and Lincoln, to the best in the tradition of Republican Party politics. If he really wants to be daring, albeit at the considerable risk of bathos, Biden might name-check Mike Pence, the vice-president who is expected to attend. It does not matter that Pence has supported an egregious president almost to the last. President Biden can make him the symbol of a better Republican Party, one that has discarded Trump, one that can, in this moment of optimism, be revived.
Biden could ask the Republicans to do as Lincoln advised in his 1861 inaugural and summon the better angels of their nature. For a Democrat to do this would be the fulfilment of Kennedy’s advice to Sorensen to avoid being partisan. To use the line that Adlai Stevenson gave Kennedy for his 1961 inaugural: “civility is not a sign of weakness”.
Like Jefferson did before him, Biden should call his opponents brethren and, like Jefferson again, fold the conflict of the election into the shared enterprise of democracy, which in 1801 was a fragile experiment.
Democracy is always a more fragile experiment than we think, and its virtues always need restating and defending. Economic power is shifting in the world, trailing political power behind it. The year 2019 was the first in a century that the total income of autocratic states exceeded that of democratic states. The only way that democracies fight back is through the beauty and the wisdom of their arguments, expressed in words that take wing.
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America was never truly in danger of succumbing to a narcissist president. The significant fact about the past few years is that, even though President Trump ignored all norms of forbearance, the constitution held. There may well be nasty scenes in the weeks to come but power will be transferred and American politics will go on. This is why the inaugural counts, because it is a democratic ritual.
President Trump is a failure and President Biden is the biggest winner against an incumbent since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932. He has the votes to crow about it, if he so chooses. But he should choose otherwise. Biden’s task is, as Lincoln said in 1865, “to bind up the nation’s wounds” or, as Roosevelt said in 1933, to do what “a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require”.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war