The final days of Donald Trump’s presidency were for us here in Santa Cruz very, very California: an earthquake on Saturday night—just a hello-there-4.2-shaker, no big deal—then the freakish onslaught of violent winds, fraying nerves and causing damage; then, finally, on Trump’s last night in the White House, a wildfire only 10 miles away that I was warned could be coming my way. It was impossible not to be on edge, bracing for bad news: What calamities might come before Joe Biden was finally inaugurated?
Shockingly, none. What came barreling down the pipeline on inauguration morning, above all else, was a sense of calm and joy and replenishment. We could finally tune in and mark the moment, feel the moment, freed of the unending cacophony of crude distraction. This was a culmination of the sigh of relief that began in November for so many of us, interrupted by the shit show of Trump-aided-and-abetted insurrection, a sigh more profound for having been drawn out.
For me, words kept jumping out as I watched, words from the book I’d edited and published about this historical moment, Now What? The Voters Have Spoken—Essays on Life After Trump.
Like those from artist Mark Ulriksen: “We are so looking forward to starting the days ahead without clenched teeth, high blood pressure or churning stomachs. Can you feel our exhale of relief? It feels hurricane strength.”
Or from editor and writer Angela Wright Shannon: “I cried those warm slow tears that start somewhere deep inside, tears that reside in a dream deferred.”
I cried warm slow tears, too, watching Inauguration Day, again and again, when I wasn’t grinning with delight at surprises like Amanda Gorman’s show-stealing eloquence and panache. I’ve had years of pressbox training in being cynical about the National Anthem, especially when sung by a pop star, but I was gaga for Lady Gaga as she so clearly soaked up the moment, present in a way only the great ones can be. I even cried during J. Lo’s bit.
I watched with my six-year-old, Coco, in my lap, as she’d been in my lap watching days of post-election analysis in November, as Kamala Harris, my senator, was sworn in as the first woman vice president. Together Coco and I sounded out the letters P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T B-I-D-E-N stripped across the screen, and she pronounced them with a grin, then asked: “How old is Joe Biden?”
Not as old as we thought, apparently. The Technicolor obscenity of the mob assault on the Capitol seems to have shocked many people into a new alertness, a new willingness to focus on the now. As they do, they notice Biden commanding the moment in a way few anticipated. He’s at ease with himself, fixated on a tough job at hand, not trying to be what he is not.
As former U.S. men’s national soccer coach Bruce Arena put it in his essay: “If I were his coach, sending him into the middle of the action with a little pep talk, I’d keep it simple. I’d tell him, ‘Joey, the reason you’re in the lineup is because we believe in you. Do what you do. You don’t need me telling you how to play. You know how to play. That’s why you’re where you are. Be Joe Biden.’”
Watching Biden give his inaugural address, it felt like he’d read Arena’s essay. The speech hit notes of passion and urgency and vision that it had to hit, but it operated on another level than that of language, a level I’d call moral or spiritual. I had read online chatter suggesting Biden had better avoid quoting Lincoln, that’s the expected move, and I wrote back: Only if it’s a memorable Lincoln quote. It was: Lincoln, upon signing the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, saying, “My whole soul is in it.”
It was a powerful way of combining a Biden asset, his artless authenticity, and a devastating critique of a system failure of the last years, that of pervasive bad faith and falseness.
As former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe pointed out in his essay in the collection, Trump was for years a Democrat. A big donor. “This whole Republican evangelical thing of his was a shtick,” McAuliffe writes. It was, in other words, a performance. A lie. The Trump era gave us a plague of debased souls contorting themselves into Tennessee-Williams-on-Broadway theatrics to convince us they believed the lie, when we all knew they didn’t. Way, way too many journalists saw repeating the little lies that went with the big lie as part of their “job.”
Biden was calling for a deeper honesty, a rolling back of the bullshit people use to convince themselves they’re doing the right thing when of course they’re not. That deeper message came through. No less a Washington fixture than Chris Wallace of Fox News said of Biden’s speech: “I have been listening to these inaugural addresses since 1961, John F. Kennedy’s ‘Ask not.’ I thought this was the best inaugural address I ever heard.” Wallace, moderator of a (botched) Biden-Trump debate last year, said “especially us in the media must note … Whether it’s us on the air, on cable or broadcast, whether it’s us on social media, on our Twitter accounts: understanding that we have to deal from facts, from the truth.”
The hard, obvious part of that is cracking down on the virulent spread of dangerous misinformation, whipped up by a volatile mix of Russian hackers, Q nuts and utterly unscrupulous Republican operatives, which after the mob hit the Capitol everyone now understands poses a serious, graphically visible danger.
The hard, less obvious part is slapping people to stop play-acting, going through the motions and pretending their “whole soul” is involved when it’s long since checked out. I tuned back into CNN just before the president and first lady arrived at the White House, a moment I wanted to see, and Biden was ambling down the street, riding the moment with ease. Suddenly Joe was in motion. He was doing that adorable old-guy run of his, dashing over to the side of the street.
I thought the CNN reporter, witness to a memorable scene, would chuckle and offer some version of, “Well he doesn’t look like Sleepy Joe now, that’s for sure.” Instead, out came a bellowed question: “Can you unite the country, Mr. President?” Whoa doggy, give that Sam Donaldson wannabe a raise! What a farce. I was reminded of the time a TV reporter showed up on the very first day of A’s spring training in 1995 and asked (famously volatile) manager Tony La Russa, “How do they look so far, coach?” and he grimaced then replied: “They’re stretching like champions.”
I’m starting to think there was more to Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris than I understood. Biden’s an East Coast dude all the way, but there is something very California about his “whole soul” inaugural address. It’s like a form of meditation: don’t pretend you don’t hear the lies, the cheap shots, the blatant spin, just notice the parade of B.S. briefly, then let it slide right by and keep doing your thing. Be you, Joey.
Steve Kettmann is the editor of ‘Now What? The Voters Have Spoken—Essays on Life After Trump,’ in stock now at Bookshop Santa Cruz and bookstores nationally.