Inauguration Day: When political change in America becomes clearest


Some 44 years later, as former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to replace President Donald J. Trump in the White House, history is decidedly not repeating itself.

And yet history will be written on January 20, like every four years. In fact, an enlightening way to tell American history is to examine the country’s 58 Days of Inauguration – pivotal points in history, whether they took place on April 30 (with George Washington, in 1789) or the March 4 (with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933), or with all successive presidents on January 20.

For a country formed by revolution, solidified and purified by civil war and rocked by a riot on Capitol Hill just a few days ago, it is often only on the day of the investiture that the scale of political change is fully apparent.

We know this from our reading of history. We also know this from our own experience of successive January 20.

In living memory, the ascendant of the vibrant John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961, after the two terms of the sleepy Dwight D. Eisenhower set the country on a new course of national purpose and idealism, just as the passage of the presidency from Carter to Ronald Reagan on January 20, 1981, presaged a right turn in national politics and a redefinition of the role of government in the lives of its citizens.

George HW Bush and Bill Clinton may have become precious companions after their years in the White House, but the earth beneath Washington shook on January 20, 1993, when the young man took over from the former president, and suddenly the gang country sound changed from old standards to Fleetwood Mac. George W. Bush and Al Gore may have been baby boomers with famous political fathers, but on January 20, 2001, shook the country into a new form of conservatism, described by the new President Bush as compassionate, ridiculed by its partisan rivals as regressive. Eight years later, on January 20, 2009, America swore in its first black president amid the kind of loud, uplifting high hopes whose only modern analogue was Kennedy’s inauguration.

The regularity of the transfer of power – on March 4 after March 4, then on January 20 after January 20 – is the expression of one of the characteristic elements of America’s political character: planned, regularized, ritual change, executed without drama even when the White House Transformation represents a fundamental shift in politics and perspective.

Trump’s inauguration after eight years in Obama, for example, marked a dramatic shift in the president’s language, behavior, and priorities. But on January 20, 2017, came and went, and Trump came and Obama left. The presidency would be different, of course, and so would the country.

This January 20 – the 59th day of the inauguration – represents another fundamental change, the symbolic and real transfer of power from a president who resisted the verdict of the people, sought to retain the White House in defiance of the will of the public and the verdict of the Electoral College. , and caused a riot that robbed the Capitol.

The story will certainly linger on January 6; there is no precedent for the seat of the seat of the country’s legislative branch at the instigation of the head of the executive branch. But power will change – Washington will change hands – not at the behest of the rioters, but on the demands of the 20th Amendment, which in 1933 set January 20 as the inauguration day.

Inauguration day holds special power, even in years when, from a 21st century perspective, the parade of 19th century bearded and mustached presidents appears to be a blur of history. The inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 after a turbulent presidential election brought the end of Reconstruction and the cruel start of the Jim Crow era. The inauguration of Grover Cleveland in 1885 brought with it the first elected Democratic administration in a quarter of a century.

January 20, 1961 marked the end of the men’s top hat, put to rest when Kennedy appeared bareheaded. On January 20, 1981, the red fixed, worn by Nancy Reagan, as the color of the power of the time. January 20, 2009 marked the end of traditional American formality, when Obama broke with fashion protocol and wore a white bow tie with his tuxedo to the 10 official opening balls. January 20, 1977, sparked informal American news, symbolized by the president’s march on Pennsylvania Avenue.

And January 20, 2021 also promises to be a date with history.

Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga will be on the Western Front of the Capitol for the inauguration, but Trump will be elsewhere, the first president to miss the swearing-in of his elected successor since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment for more than a century and a – there is half. There will be unprecedented visible security. A nation that has always viewed itself as a sentinel of youth – more than a dozen signatories to the Declaration of Independence were under 40 – will inaugurate its second consecutive president over 70.

But the touchstone of this inauguration – January 20 which helps us understand what we are going through this week – is the day of the 1977 inauguration.

A smooth transition was not expected in 1977 to be possible, with the Nixon scandals endangering the Republic still on the mind. Ford and Carter had fought furiously. When the audio came out during their first debate, the two contenders stood awkwardly at their podiums, frozen and awkward for 27 minutes – which veteran NBC presenter Sander Vanocur, last survivor of the John F. Kennedy-Nixon debates did of 1960, described as “an unnatural act between two willing candidates”. Ford suggested that Carter was naive and inexperienced. Carter sought to smear Ford with Nixon’s misdeeds.

Even so, the two grew up respecting each other as Election Day approached, and that respect – along with respect for transitional traditions – bled into the transfer of power.

“They ran a very difficult campaign, but Ford didn’t put up with any ill will in Carter,” said Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College and author of the 2014 biography “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter”. The two barely knew each other. other before the campaign, but Ford insisted on a smooth transfer. “And he understood the norms of political behavior in a way that Trump does not understand.”

The opening day burst crisp and clear – a metaphor for the weather. Carter woke up that morning at Blair House, across from the Executive Mansion, and had scrambled eggs with his family. He traveled to O Street Northwest to attend services at First Baptist Church. The Carter’s and the Fords had coffee together in the Blue Room of the White House. Then, like all elected presidents except one since Martin Van Buren, who was accompanied to Andrew Jackson’s swearing-in in 1837, the two went to Capitol Hill together – a ritual that Trump made clear he would not continue. not.

Neither does Biden will likely find himself tempted to start his presidency, as Carter did, with 21 of the most generous words in the general genre of presidential inauguration speeches:

“For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land.”

Ford was stunned. He wasn’t sure how to respond. He seized the moment, then listened to the applause, and finally stood up, acknowledging the benevolence of the new president, accepting the country’s appreciation.

It was a January 20th like no other, just like this week’s will certainly be.

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