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  • James Berger


Despite being stalked by 19 zombie-like days of 2020 in most incongruous fashion, the real 2021 just stood up.

200,000 flags lined the Mall, stand-ins for the people of a beleaguered nation who would normally be packing every spot of grass but for their loss of twice as many American souls in the last ten months alone. 25,000 heavily armed troops stood guard throughout Washington DC, a mere two weeks after homegrown insurgents invaded the Capitol itself. This inauguration day was no mere ceremony. Its meaning will likely be debated for decades. But nobody will debate the profundity of its meaning.

"Fervently do we hope" that our new President and Vice President replace false greatness with the simple majesty of reconnecting Americans with America AND America with the world. Yet "Fondly do we pray…" for so much else.

As today began, I found myself oddly fixated on the early morning hours of November 9, 2016 – a torrid mixture of heartbreak and disbelief. For those most diehard believers (e.g., me), it would not be until around 3:00 AM we would accept Hillary Clinton had lost and Donald Trump would become our next President. Still, the sun did rise, we never quite got to apocalypse… and, well, here we are now.

I suppose at least 75 million Americans on the other side of 2020's election shared strikingly similar feelings this time around. Politics is always personal. Politics provokes passions - for good and ill. Politics is people. Surely, we know that now. Hence it was genuinely striking when President Biden declared: "Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war."

The speech was literally unified by unity: "To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity, unity."

At the same time, however, President Biden, firmly rejected moral equivalency. Recent weeks, months and years have taught us painful lessons from which the President did not retreat: "There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty… to defend the truth and defeat the lies."

What do our times require? A radically contemporary war against wars: "On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause… Let's begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another see one another, show respect to one another." Was this the first-ever Presidential “battle cry” for empathy? Despite my life-long attachment to cynicism, my mood was changing. Fast.

Biden’s international outreach maintained a similar tone: "We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges. And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."

Finally, the President melded his themes together: "What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans?" he asked. "I think we know: Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, the truth." And there it was: the magic - a sort of reclamation of a New Year’s Eve denied. The most untraditional of speeches had suddenly left me speechless.

Only time will tell if Americans can live up to such an admirable definition of Americanism. After a year of fear, division, and loss, however, taking at least one day to hope, smile and yes - celebrate a President who speaks about truth and love rather than “American carnage” (among other things) – doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Thank you, Mr. President. My whole soul is in it too.


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