Photo credit: MCCV/Shutterstock
Apart from a few brief moments, like seeing Biden sworn in by Justice Roberts which brought even hard-boiled realists like my husband and myself to tears, the spectacle of Joe Biden’s inauguration left me cold.
In the days since the Senate special election in Georgia and the abortive coup of January 6, I had initially felt elated, like so many of my demographic (liberal Jews in late middle age living in cities on the East and West coasts of the US). That Trump could be defeated; that Warnock and Ossoff be elected so that the Senate would turn “Kind of Blue,” to quote Miles Davis; that the long-muted scratchy voice of Dr. Anthony Fauci was heard at full pitch – these seemed to me life and death matters. Yes, a great thing had happened.
On television the morning of the inauguration, the view down Pennsylvania Avenue was beautiful. Yet the fields of flags and the motorcade couldn’t help but remind me of earlier heart-stopping moments, which had led all too quickly to catastrophe and division in America.
The Black poet (Amanda Gorman), talented and moving, reciting her poem in an updated Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat which, consciously or not, evoked the first inauguration in my living memory when the dying Robert Frost, blinded by the pellucid winter light, stumbled over his complex and ambiguous lines: “the deed of gift was many deeds of war.” That poem, difficult as it was for him to read and for us to hear, remains troubling and difficult to parse today.
And that was what I missed: the willingness to focus on what was troubling in our history, not well understood and difficult in this moment. I couldn’t warm to the perfectly choreographed normality of the spectacle. The occasion was all about great singing of patriotic songs, poetry, pomp and circumstance as well as classy fashion and ready memes.
For weeks, I had been hoping that they would cancel the open-air event, tradition or not, and do the swearing in on zoom to avoid what had seemed to me a likely, if not inevitable, occasion for lethal violence and/or COVID spreading, a decision that would have been consistent with the general advice to the American people to stay safe.
The coup de grâce for me was the evening event in which the three living and able-bodied ex-presidents stood on a stage and recited feel-good scripted remarks about unity and collaboration across the aisle.
I could tolerate Clinton and Obama getting their moments in the limelight, but Bush? Despite his outstanding record of humanitarian action around the global AIDS pandemic of which, as a global health physician, I am acutely aware, he is, to me, still a brutal murderer. He should not be smiling ear to ear under the spotlights.
The sole exception to the perfectly smooth production values was the unscripted glitch in which the new first couple arrived finally at the door of their new home that night – only to find that no one had opened it for them.
There were a few seconds of panic in which they waited and the first lady lays her head on the president’s chest, with affection, fatigue and worry in equal measure, and my unfounded fantasy is that she had realized at that moment what lay in store for them.
Ultimately, though, what troubled me most profoundly was what we didn’t see.
This display of unsullied hope and unity was made possible by the narrow camera angles that stopped the field of view just short of the razor wire and the thousands of armed security men and women, the National Guard members who had been sleeping for days on the floor of the Capitol building. (One day later they would get a thank you handshake for their service to the country from the Congress members coming back to work, and then would be shuffled off to the unheated floor of the Thurgood Marshall parking garage where there would be limited toilet facilities and they would be breathing air thick with carbon monoxide.)
Adam Gopnik’s rhapsodic short piece in the New Yorker, “Our Year in Hell,” recently conveyed a perfectly reassuring vision of what is in sight for my demographic – only to edit out the ugly reality for most Americans. Is “our” hell really the sensation of mask against mask, the mysterious and annoying fireworks epidemic” of the mid-summer in the cities and kids staring at screens? Was “our” experience of the true inner circles of hell of the pandemic limited to the obligatory interviews by David Muir of nurses in ICU’s with their looks of desperation and exhaustion, reliably followed in the last five minutes of the broadcast by an uplifting anecdote of an “American hero” or a “person of the week,” to soften the blow and let us go back to our after-dinner dishwashing?.
Unity is a great objective. But I fear our country is more divided than ever, not just by rampant racism, but by the limitations of what we see and hear.
I came of age after that memorable inauguration of John Kennedy, also a milestone of firsts: the youngest president, the first Catholic. I took part in civil rights marches and the anti-war movement. I was arrested and went to jail for picketing Stop and Shop during the UFW grape boycott.
But no one in my family or even in my high school class was drafted and went to Vietnam. When I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, with my husband who is indeed a Vietnam Veteran, I had no names to search for.
I have a few friends and, as a physician, many patients, who have had Covid-19, many of whom are still struggling with long term effects, and a few who have died. But I know no one whose whole family has died, who has lost a home or has gone without food during this time.
Unity is not a bad aspiration, but a country whose birth was enabled by slavery and whose maturation fostered division, a civil war, and growing inequality cannot keep those issues out of sight by repeatedly declaring that hope is just around the corner.
My favorite moment in recent days was Dr. Fauci’s press conference, when he was finally ungagged and said that if 70-85% of the country were to be fully vaccinated by mid-summer, we might be able to imagine a return to normal life for students and others by the fall.
A reporter tried to reframe what he was saying and asked if this meant that we could look forward to “normalcy” in September. Fauci looked as though all of the rage he had suppressed over the last year was about to be spewed forth but just reiterated that the outcome was dependent on how many individuals were vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity and repeated his concern about those who were hesitant to accept the vaccine.
We are very fortunate to be spared the horror of Trump’s daily tweet storm of obvious lies and venom. Very. But now the government has the enormous task of not keeping the less palatable realities of what America became, long before Donald Trump, out of sight.
Stephanie Engel (MD) is a psychiatrist in private practice in Cambridge, MA. and a consultant in global mental health.