This was, most assuredly, not the largest audience ever to witness a presidential inauguration.
This time, what we saw was what we got. A Capitol gathering where the crowd was sparse, socially distanced and radiating safety. Where everyone wore a mask. Where the sad reality of our time was displayed with a transparency for all to see.
If we have learned one thing over the past four years, it’s that it matters who we seek to emulate. When leadership asks that we distrust our own senses, consequences ensue. When leaders trust us to exercise our own judgment, we begin to find our way back to adult democratic governance.
Two modes of leadership took center stage this week (neither of which involves the man you’re thinking about). First, we honored the memory and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King modeled for us the holy work of nonviolent protest. He knew well the historical barriers faced by our African American brethren, the enormity of the obstacles they faced finding their way to the mountaintop, and he doubted he would ever reach that promised land himself. But he did not waver in his mission — he preached justice, he preached nonviolence. It is his example we revere each January.
Then, we witnessed an American transition of power. It may not have been exactly peaceful given the context of the past two weeks, with the heavy military presence surrounding the Capitol. But it was majestic. And we celebrated the ascension of a man who has already modeled so much of what it means to be an American leader.
Throughout the summer and fall, President Biden faced an avalanche of derisive tweets — “corrupt politician,” “a disaster,” “a puppet,” ”globalist sellout” and the like. Biden remained above the fray. He did not respond to the pettiness of the tweets, focusing instead on the pandemic and the economy. Months before he was elected president, he was acting presidential.
Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum. Biden gave the people a glimpse of the dignity that was theirs for the taking. After four years of exhausting rancor, the nation took it.
Biden gave the people a glimpse of dignity. After four years of exhausting rancor, the nation took it.
But President Biden wasn’t elected because of his soaring rhetoric. “We’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” he declared in his inaugural address. How true that was — Joe Biden was indeed chosen because of the power of his example. And so, the man who ignored juvenile taunts about his mask wearing (“this guy has some big issues”), the man who would not respond to taunts of “Sleepy Joe” with similar jabs of juvenile retort, the man who took heat for working with segregationist fellow senators in the 1970s became president.
On Monday, still as president-elect, Biden tweeted that Dr. King’s words “remind us that darkness and hate cannot drive out hate — only light and love can.” To that end, on the eve of the inauguration, he led the nation in a memorial of 400 lights at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool symbolizing the 400,000 people lost thus far to the pandemic. It was facing that pool, of course, where Dr. King shared that most famous of American visions: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
“Here we stand looking out to the great Mall where Dr. King spoke of his dream,” President Biden said from the Capitol steps in his inaugural address, and he declared that “the dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
And from this place of justice, Biden called for unity. “My whole soul is in it,” he said, invoking another ethical model, Abraham Lincoln, who faced our last serious test of national disunion. Biden continued, “We must end this uncivil war. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility.”
We are a nation sorely in need of models of behavior, dignity and discourse, all distilled through the power of example. As the last traces of demagoguery and presidentially-inspired vigilante mobs dissipate from the Capitol, Biden slowly reminds us of the power of quiet, personal inspiration. We breathe a deep sigh of relief as presidential messaging begins to dwell not on endless personal grievance but on the dire needs of a nation.
The last four years were enormously dispiriting to many of us. Yet we remember Dr. King’s teaching: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As we heed the power of example from this refreshingly inspiring week, we can begin to repair the damage from the past four years and move ever closer to our Constitution’s still-elusive promise of a “more perfect union.”
Stuart Tochner is an employment attorney and is also the president of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. The views expressed here are his alone.