By MARSHA MERCER
At the first presidential inauguration I attended in person, President Ronald Reagan opened his address with a nod to the peaceful transfer of power.
“To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are,” Reagan said just after noon on Jan. 20, 1981.
“In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
Little did we know then how much of a miracle we took for granted.
I was new to Washington in 1981 and, sitting in the press section as the temperature hit a balmy 55 degrees, I was agog at the scene.
The oaths of office by the vice president and president, Nancy Reagan in her bright red coat, prayers, military bands, speeches and 21-gun salute all played out before a cheering throng that stretched from the West Front of the Capitol into the distance on the National Mall.
I fell in love with the “commonplace occurrence” and made a point of witnessing in person every outdoor inauguration since – nine in all. Arctic temperatures in 1985 forced Reagan to move his second inauguration inside, keeping me out along with more than 140,000 invited guests.
I loved the stirrings of hope and renewal inaugurations brought to the surface. Even if I preferred a different presidential victor, I was usually glad to see the joy that animated the day.
Let’s hope those halcyon days are not a thing of the past.
Like millions of Americans, I’ll watch Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration Wednesday on TV or online. The sad and chilling confluence of the novel coronavirus and credible threats of violence since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump have suspended our time-honored traditions.
Trump, who still falsely claims the election was stolen from him, was impeached Wednesday on a bipartisan House vote for inciting the violence at the Capitol, becoming the only president in history to be impeached twice.
He said he will not attend Biden’s inauguration, the first president to back out since Andrew Johnson refused in 1869 to attend Ulysses S. Grant’s swearing-in. Johnson too had been impeached, but one vote saved him from being removed from office.
Biden, the mayor of Washington and the governors of Virginia and Maryland have sent one message to well-wishers and those who have evil intentions alike: Stay home.
Trump issued a video statement Wednesday after he was impeached that didn’t mention impeachment or regret but said: “Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement.”
Our movement? At least 16 groups, some whose members are armed pro-Trumpians, have registered for protests in Washington. The FBI warns those protests as well as others planned in every state capitol this week threaten to turn violent.
Seven-foot fences have been erected around the Capitol, and tens of thousands of National Guard troops will be on duty to protect the small group of dignitaries attending the Biden inauguration in person.
Biden’s inaugural theme of “America United” sounds more aspirational than realistic, but he must start somewhere. Biden faces a monumental task as long as Trump is falsely telling more than 70 million voters he was wronged.
Americans used to understand that some of us were bound to be disappointed by a presidential contest. Defeat meant it was time to assess what went wrong, regroup and go to work – not use American flags as weapons to beat people.
The 1980 election was no picnic for incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who won just 49 electoral votes to Republican Reagan’s 489.
But Carter conceded to Reagan in a telephone call before 10 p.m. on Election Day and promised his support for the transition. At his inauguration, Reagan thanked Carter for his “gracious cooperation.”
We won’t hear anything like that from Biden, of course. Nor should we, for Trump hasn’t cooperated at all, much less graciously.
The best we can hope for is a peaceful day and week. That would be worth celebrating.
(© Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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