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Sweet relief as Joe Biden finds the right words for a fractured nation

The 46th US president’s inauguration speech was authentic and reassuringly low-key. Here we have a reasonable man with a healing message to reunite America


Family affair: Joe Biden turns to kiss first lady Jill Biden as son Hunter takes the 127-year-old Biden Bible at Wednesday’s inauguration

Family affair: Joe Biden turns to kiss first lady Jill Biden as son Hunter takes the 127-year-old Biden Bible at Wednesday’s inauguration

Family affair: Joe Biden turns to kiss first lady Jill Biden as son Hunter takes the 127-year-old Biden Bible at Wednesday’s inauguration

In the end, it was about relief.

Relief he was not shot. Relief that reliable adults were back in charge; that those resolving their childhood trauma in the Oval Office and the Situation Room had left for Florida to the sound of the Village People.

At its essence, though, Joe Biden’s inauguration was relief about love.

The love between Joe and Jill, the love of a father for his children, a grandfather for his grandchildren; the president’s love for his faith, his ancestors, the constitution, his country, Americans, the world. At the inauguration of the 46th US president, love unspooled itself around the Capitol and America, initiating the healing of hurts, the binding of wounds, the exorcising of the ghosts of fear, the demons of hate, vengeance and violence.

The 127-year-old Biden family Bible, with its metal clasps, resembled a book of magic from a fairy tale; bringing the words of Thomas Jefferson to mind:

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles… but who can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when and where they would end?

Just 14 days before, we had seen scission and its evils right there in the constitutional Holy of Holies, the temple of Democracy. But when President Biden spoke, it was the beginning of their end.


Star power: Lady Gaga performs the US national anthem at the inauguration

Star power: Lady Gaga performs the US national anthem at the inauguration

Star power: Lady Gaga performs the US national anthem at the inauguration

Lady Gaga bore the dove with the olive branch on her chest. America had weathered the deluge. Symbols over cymbals. It was amazing. And it was grace.

Seeing their grandfather as the antithesis of the 45th president, it was Joe Biden’s grandchildren who had urged him to run, telling him: “Pops, this is your time.” It was, and he took it and revelled in it. On Wednesday, he gave a speech that was authentic, sincere, humble, awed, rallying, challenging and soothing. In image and motif, concept and cadence, it struck the right notes, each of them finding their sympathetic vibration in the words of the 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, who took to the dais after the president. Unity, community, neighbours, neighbourhood, high purpose, common cause, light after dark, because joy comes in the morning and sees, in Gorman’s words, that the nation “isn’t broken, but simply unfinished”.

Technically, for such a spectacle, it had a bumpy start, being prosaic, almost transactional. Biden thanked his predecessors, talked about schools and jobs, rebuilding the middle class, the binaries of “peace and war”, “storm and strife”, and of the virus “stalking the land”, a clunking cliché. The delivery, too, was off: forced, staccato, sitting too high in his vocal register; a series of telegrams, as opposed to a building, an unfolding of the moments, of which every good speech is made. As Biden squinted in the Washington snowflakes and sun, I wondered at first if his excellent writers had momentarily forgotten what Maya Angelou said; how “at the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”.

Except they hadn’t forgotten. The inaugural address unfolded in exquisite moments, jewels of lines. “Take a measure of me and my heart.” The advice from his mother about how we must stand in each other’s shoes. The image of his father, who became all our fathers, and all of us parents, worrying about the job, healthcare, the mortgage. When he told us: “I promise you, I get it”, we believed him. The denizens of the glitzy towers and gold elevators were banished.

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Biden was saying to America: your presidency has returned to you. Together, he assured his fellow citizens, we will recognise our common humanity, our right to disagree respectfully, to do a hand’s turn for each other. The message: we will be Americans who love our fellow Americans, “opening our souls, instead of hardening our hearts”.

He spoke to the city and the world — urbi et orbi — looking out at emptiness, Washington cleared of its people, ringed by razorwire, stupefied by swathes of military, since the previous office-holder had so recently tried to asset-strip the capital and Capitol of its dignity, its decency, of democracy itself. In his demeanour and delivery, the new president made it clear that he, his family and allies see themselves as servants of the people, not as buccaneers, profiteers from their losses, divisions, misery and degradation. He was there to unite, and unite he would. Together they would dream the dream, together they would heal the wounds; together, in the work ahead, “they would need each other”.

The speech was low-key. And low-key was genius. A reasonable man with a reasonable message: we have left ego and dysfunction behind; no more spite, vengeance and hypersensitivity to perceived slights; no more moral carnage; no more late-night fusillades of peeve, persecution. Low-key reflects Biden’s personality, his politics, his mission. Because he knows that all across America, behind closed doors, in subways and on the streets are bruised people, barely breathing: frightened by factions, alarmed by insurrection, evicted by indifference, dehumanised by division, distrustful of the police.

Some 400,000 have lost their lives to Covid-19, a disease that, when it could no longer be denied, that was downplayed; insiders, macho men and women, strutted maskless, reckless, clueless, infected, contagious, while hospitals became a virus slaughterhouse. For the dead and damaged, there was a silent prayer. Praying is what Biden does every day, so he asked America to join him. Here was the leader of the free world, connected to, connecting with, his God, naturally, unselfconsciously, thoughtfully.

There were quotes from St Augustine, not from a trawl for “something suitable”, but from his lived experience. “The people are a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” He asked America what those common objects were, before spelling them out on the steps of the Capitol. Their greatest common object was ‘truth’. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit,” there are “manufactured facts”.

The “better angels of our nature” — exhausted from speech-outings since Lincoln’s first inaugural address — got their wings an airing. Here, they were headling angels of mercy.

Vision is what Biden’s own people have in the backroom. The real-life Donna Mosses and CJ Creggs, the Josh Lymans, and most of all, the Toby Zieglers. I suspect the speech was written by individual writers within a trusted group — the different ‘voices’ were evident — but certainly not by committee. Because committee-written speeches are drab, thin, feeble, process-driven, littered with stats, riven by competing data. They are devoid of ideas, fluency; emptied of intelligence, insight, imagination, rhythm, music, heart, soul. I suspect even before the election result was called, there was talk about “the Speech”; writers’ hearts would have been in their mouths at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve: “My God, we’re on!”

For a stammerer at the inauguration, President Biden was definitely on form. Fluent now, he remembers how words can be boobytraps, mere vowels or consonants, reducing us stammerers to whole-body tics, unless we become a living, breathing thesaurus, swapping this word for that, and that for this, so we can retain a semblance of comfort, of control over our speech, breath, lips, tongue, dignity.

In life, though, we have no control — as Biden, who has lost a wife, daughter and son reminded us. “There is no accounting for what fate will deal you.” A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief. He can survive and fight and lead. A signal thought for us in a pandemic. In life, change is our only constant. Denying it will destroy us. Acknowledge change, accommodate it and we can move forward.

Which is what America, under new leadership, will do in the world, living by “the power of its example” over “the example of its power”.


Words of hope: 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman took to the dais after Biden’s speech

Words of hope: 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman took to the dais after Biden’s speech

Words of hope: 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman took to the dais after Biden’s speech

At the end of the speech, President Biden did what he does: he smiled. He hugged his wife. In their families — his and vice-president Kamala Harris’s — was evident the joy, weight and honour of public service over celebrity; public responsibilities over private opportunities. They had an innate understanding of Amanda Gorman’s words for them, for America and for all of us, that “if we merge mercy with might and might with right then love becomes our legacy”.

At the Capitol, love made it a new day in America, and the world.

Miriam O’Callaghan was speechwriter for taoiseach Enda Kenny

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