It’s Joe Biden’s job to put a stop to American carnage – and this is what he should say on 20 January

The task of the president-elect’s inauguration speech is, as Lincoln said in 1865, “to bind up the nation’s wounds”. 

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.

[See also: American civil war]

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.

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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 …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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