By Rajan Philips –
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took their oaths as President and Vice President last Wednesday, January 20. It was a peaceful transition of power in America, as it has been every four years for over 200 years. The difference this year was that the transition took place in a highly fortified capital, in a socially distanced and politically divided country. Modifying Bill Clinton’s old line, the new President said in his inaugural speech: “We’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” The example was there in the peaceful transition of the nation’s political power, except this time it needed the deployment of the state’s coercive power to keep it peaceful. It was a swift turnaround after Trump’s failed self-coup (auto-golpe, as in original Spanish) two weeks ago. But the shadow hung heavy over Washington. Biden’s inaugural poet, the 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, captured the moment, asking “Where can we find light / In this never-ending shade?”
The big, fat fly in the inauguration ointment was of course Donald Trump, who lost the election in November but could never get over it. He did not show up at his successor’s inauguration. Instead, he flew away to Florida, after the parody of a farewell ceremony attended by an estimated crowd of 200 people comprising family and residual staffers, to the blaring of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, not mention the 21-gun salute that he craved for and was given. Even Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, kept away from this farce, and attended Biden’s inauguration as the sole representative of the old regime. And historians, even before history, have already ranked Trump, the only President to be impeached twice, as America’s worst president ever.
American presidential inaugurations are full of pomp and ceremonies. Historically, they may have evolved from early republican adaptations of monarchical rituals of the Empire that America broke free from. Not unlike the design of the capital City of Washington modelled on the classical architecture of Rome, the ancient First Republic, that also had Senators. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both promoters of the adaptations of classical architecture, a style that persisted till the 1930s. President Washington’s most important legacy, however, is considered to be his walking away from office after two terms, in 1797, and creating the precedent for peaceful transition of power in a modern republic. George III, the bipolar English King at that time, was apparently stunned by the retirement from power by his American nemesis. Donald Trump has been the only President ever to try to break from the precedent set by the country’s founding President.
The first post-Trump inauguration had its special moments and meanings. Diversity and pluralism were writ large over it. It was a historic occasion for America to have a woman, a woman of colour, and the first descendant of immigrant parents from Jamaica and Tamil Nadu, become the country’s second in command. Swearing in Kamala Harris was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court. Joe Biden is the second Catholic to become President, sixty years after President Kennedy. Administering the presidential oath was Chief Justice John Roberts, the first Catholic Chief Justice. Sixty years ago, such a concurrence would have been called Catholic Action. Not anymore. Joe Biden, a devout and practicing Catholic, is to the left of the American Catholic establishment, the very mobile and socially conservative Catholic middle classes, and every one of the five (out of nine) conservative Catholic judges on the US Supreme Court.
Post-Trump, Biden’s twin inaugural themes were unity and democracy. He did not soar like Obama, that was left to Lady Gaga and her rendition of the National Anthem. But Biden exuded strength and sincerity. Just as Abraham Lincoln had said in 1863 that his “whole soul” was in the proclamation of emancipation from slavery, President Biden promised: “My whole soul is in this: bringing America together.” There is no underestimating the challenges that this task faces, especially while grappling with the four daunting challenges he listed: the pandemic, climate, racial justice, and the economy.
And the theme of democracy is tied up with all of them, and not rarefied from any of them. He did not say much on foreign policy except for acknowledging that “the world is watching,” and asserting that “America has been tested, and we have come out stronger for it.” The world will indeed be watching. But the world saw that the American promise for democracy is still alive where it should generationally be – in Amanda Gorman’s stirring recitation of her inauguration poem, “The Hill we climb.”
Poets of Democracy
Tomorrow, January 25, is Robbie Burns day, a day mostly marked in Scotland and many parts of the world by Scots and their friends, by consuming haggis, drinking Scotch, and piping bagpipes. But there is a serious side to the Scottish icon and his poetry, for Burns has been called, “the master poet of democracy,” and that he was made to be so by “the ordeal of poverty and toil,” and not by some bourgeois attributes or sensibilities.
Burns’s “sympathy for the oppressed and support for revolution” made him a passionate champion of American Independence and the French Revolution. He went further in his 1792 poem: The Rights of Woman, surpassing both Thomas Paine (Rights of Man), and the great Thomas Jefferson (Declaration of Independence), showing poetic prescience and proclaiming:
“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”
That same year, 1792, Burns wrote another poem: “The Slave’s Lament”, based on his work experience in Jamaica. That and other poems of Burns inspired and were frequently cited by both Fredrick Douglas, the celebrated African American abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, the President of emancipation.
It is indeed a poetic coincidence that more than 200 years after Burns, a young African American female poet should articulate the same themes of democracy and egalitarianism that inspired Burns in wholly different circumstances in far away Scotland. Stepping into a tradition of reading poetry at presidential inaugurations that President Kennedy had started in 1961 by inviting Robert Frost, no less, Amanda Gorman positively stole a good part of the inauguration thunder with her poise, panache and, of course, her poetry.
A Harvard graduate and the country’s first National Youth Poet Laurette, Ms. Gorman had been invited by President Biden on the suggestion of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who is an educator. As she later said, Ms. Gorman wrote the poem in two halves, the first before the January 6 siege of the Capitol, and the second after the siege. “That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” she has told the media. Poetic admirers have called the poem’s title, “The Hill We Climb,” as suggesting “both labour and transcendence.” The long poem was aspirational in its first half, and defiant in the second:
We the successors of a country and a time,
Where a skinny Black girl,
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,
can dream of becoming president,
only to find herself reciting for one.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter –
our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.