A Tale of Two (actually, three) Inaugurals

For a president to do great things, the times must require them. Joe Biden takes the Oath of Office with America in a crisis almost beyond the scope of words. Try these comparisons:

The worst crisis since FDR took office in the midst of the Great Depression or the worst crisis since Abraham Lincoln was sworn in with Civil War about to break out?

How about a combination of the two with a pandemic added into the mix which has already killed 400,000 Americans in a year.

On Election Night, I was all by myself in a hotel in Reading, Pa. I had spent the previous days catching the last bit of campaigning in what everyone knew was the most critical state in the election. I had a friend in Reading and had thought I might spend the evening at her place but she was observing correct social distancing protocols. She invited me to be part of a Zoom with about 300 other people, none of whom I knew. I took a pass.

I phoned a friend who is not quite a year younger than Biden. My friend had been a leader of Sixties political movements and now teaches at Columbia School of Journalism. He’s a serious guy but he was positively giddy about the prospect the night held is store: Biden becoming president. He had the potential to be an FDR, my friend said. And as my friend had been born when FDR was president I figured he knew.

Of course, the night would pass without a victor being declared. But when we spoke we were both several cocktails into the evening and were certain of the outcome.

We both agreed that Biden was the man for the times. That he had run a brilliant campaign. He had refused to get sucked in to Trumpian twitter spats. He had been cool even when Democratic partisans had been screaming for him to be hot. We reminded each other that at the start of the year, before the pandemic, the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination had been outside the mainstream: two women — Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — and Bernie Sanders. Yet somehow, by playing old fashioned politics, Biden had worked his networks, consolidated his support in the critical constituency of the Democratic coalition: African-Americans, and come from far back to quickly and decisively win the nomination.

Yes, the pandemic changed a lot. The time was not right to try something new. But Joe knows … that’s what we told each other. Joe knows how to work Congress, knows how to push the buttons of government. And now the times presented him with a chance to really do something in his first 100 days, just like FDR.

The idea of a President’s first 100 day agenda goes back to FDR and we both agreed, Joe would be inaugurated with a crisis-based opportunity for action similar to FDR’s.

And Joe knows …

Four years ago, I was in Washington to begin recording a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Trump’s first hundred days. I went down to the Washington Monument for the Inauguration ceremony. The crowd was sparse and not particularly joyous. I recorded some of the sound of cheering and the inevitable crazy person decked out in MAGA gear who made a beeline for my microphone. I noted the Teutonic cadences of the American carnage speech for Britain’s Observer newspaper.

The day was grey and not particularly wintry. As I watched on a jumbotron l felt the hostility from the saner Trump supporters. The crazy ones want to be interviewed, the sane ones - the majority, I’m afraid - want to fight you.

The next day I went to the Million Women March, an altogether more crowded and happy occasion. I was with a friend—ex-army—we had Iraq in common. We were pushing his daughter in her stroller with his wife and her friends. We walked around the Capitol building then slowly made our way down Independence Ave SE. There was ample security for this particular demo. After about half an hour we confessed to one another that being in crowds like this made us jittery. A bit of Baghdad PTSD.

We walked back to his house on Capitol Hill and watched as Trump’s first hundred days began with Sean Spicer coming out and lying for Trump about crowd-sizes. The lies would never stop. The purpose of the lies—to divide the country further—would be the most successful policy of Trump’s whole presidency.

Today will be different. Joe Biden didn’t pursue the presidency for 30 + years without thinking about the best way to get started. Joe knows how to get a hold of the public health crisis, he knows how to steady the economy.

But there is so much to repair in the fabric of American society, 100 days or 1000 may not be enough.

Joe knows … but I’m not sure anyone knows how to reverse America’s half century march to calamity.

This is the first post on History of a Calamity. Thanks for reading. Check out the “about” page to find out more. Please subscribe and tell your friends to subscribe, and if you like to listen to your history check-out my FRDH, First Rough Draft of History, podcast