America needs inspiration after a grinding four-year presidency of division, spite and assaults on its founding values. When Biden delivers his inaugural address Wednesday, expect him to share in the grief of the pandemic-blighted nation he leads and to offer grim honesty about the road ahead — both commodities scorned by the previous commander in chief.
His assignment is even more daunting than it was during the campaign. On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, the US lost a 400,000th life to Covid-19
. The country’s vaccine rollout is a mess. New virus mutations are spreading unseen. Then there’s the problem of a growing nationalist insurgency
When Biden places his hand on the Bible and swears the oath of office, he will shoulder the most poisoned inheritance since Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1933 took office amid the Great Depression.
FDR’s infectious optimism and inaugural rallying cry, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” paved America’s path out of crisis. Years of struggles against crippling polio had equipped him with inner steel, empathy for the dispossessed and an unshakeable belief that even in the most desperate hour, better times are ahead.
Eighty-eight years on, another new president will attempt to revive a nation stricken by grief and broken national bonds, his character also forged by personal tragedy — the deaths of his first wife, infant daughter and grown son Beau
. “I know these are dark times, but there is always light,” a tearful Biden said as he left Delaware for Washington and the mission of his life.
‘We must not be enemies’
When Biden stares out from the West Front of the US Capitol toward the vast American interior on Wednesday, he won’t see a massive crowd. In its place will be a forest of flags, representing all the Americans who can’t be on the National Mall to witness the birth of his presidency.
The vast installation, including thousands of Stars and Stripes, state and territorial flags, is one way of distracting from the pandemic and the Trump-inspired insurrection that made a traditional inauguration impossible.
But mass gatherings on the Mall are a comparatively recent tradition, anyway. The first President, George Washington, took the inaugural oath of office in 1789 at Federal Hall in New York
, then serving as the US capital.
show President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861, as the US was tearing itself apart before the Civil War. With security concerns high, Honest Abe took the oath on the East Front of the Capitol, as was then the norm, below the building’s still unfinished dome.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” Lincoln said, an admonition apt for the divided nation Biden must lead.
In 1945, a sick and exhausted FDR
, who was months away from death, reasoned that wartime was no time for a party. The soldiers who would have marched in his fourth inaugural parade were locked in combat in Europe and Asia. So, like Biden, FDR urged supporters not to flock to Washington; he delivered his address from the South Portico of the White House instead.
At least Biden will get to go outside. Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural festivities were moved into the Capitol Rotunda in 1985
because of frigid weather.
The Washington chill is no joke.
President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia
only 32 days after taking office. His demise was perhaps accelerated by his one-hour 45-minute inaugural address in the cold.
The weather may be the only thing Biden doesn’t have to worry about. Skies over the Capitol are forecast to be clear at noon on Wednesday, with temperatures hovering at 39 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).