After four years of tumult, there was no way I was going to miss the moment that Joseph R. Biden, Jr. took the oath of office and became the 46th President of the United States of America. Not to mention seeing the first woman of color, Kamala Harris, sworn in as vice president. I tuned in just as things got rolling, to watch Lady Gaga — one of the few maskless people present — enter, clasp a golden mic, and belt out the Star-Spangled Banner.
It’s the song of sports and stadiums, of taking the knee, of Olympic glory. It’s a song to which I usually don’t give very much thought. It veers toward bombastic and is a little over-soaked in battle imagery. I wouldn’t put it in my top 40 playlist.
And yet, I found myself tearing up as Gaga sang and the camera panned over the 400,000 flags on the Washington Mall, each representing someone who could not be here today. Someone who had died in the past year from the coronavirus.
After four years of angry tweeting, this past year of our 45th president ignoring a pandemic that simply wouldn’t wish itself away, and the past several months of out-and-out lies about who won the election, I couldn’t wait for Donald J. Trump to be on his way out of town. But that was not why I felt flooded with emotion.
It was that only two weeks before, his followers, people who his last opponent, Hillary R. Clinton once referred to — perhaps injudiciously — as a “basketful of deplorables” attacked the Capitol. They couldn’t accept a loss and a peaceful transition of power. And in acting on their anger by choosing insurrection, they had overturned nothing but their own lives. It was probably the lowest point in our democracy that I have lived through.
So, here we were at the Biden inauguration, a peaceful transition and celebration of nationhood. Even if the symbol of that transition, one president handing over the job to another, was absent.
Yes, indeed, our flag was still there.
In 1814, when Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would later be set to music and become our national anthem, our nation was under attack. Key watched the British Navy in Baltimore Harbor bombard Fort McHenry in what was ultimately an American victory. At the time he wrote it, we had been at war with the former mother country for two years, and their troops had stormed Washington and burned the Capitol. We were faced with an existential threat from outside forces. Today, it feels very close to that, only we are besieged from within. To watch our own people try to take over the Capitol in the way a foreign power once had attempted was gut-wrenching.
At the inauguration, Biden spoke eloquently of unity and resilience. He called out white supremacy by its ugly name, along with the perniciousness of “manufactured” facts. He is a man who is no stranger to tragedy, and the notes he struck, humble and compassionate, yet positive and can-do, felt like what we needed in this moment.
While I was watching, I couldn’t help but think of my what my father would have made of all this. I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately, probably because only two days before the inauguration I marked his 13th yahrzeit. I’ve often wondered how my dad would have dealt with the Trump years. He was a Roosevelt Democrat who loved this nation in the way that the sons and daughters of immigrants often do — fully, without reservation. That doesn’t mean he was blind to its flaws, but he appreciated the freedom it had given him and his family, knowing that his forebears had fled places infinitely worse. He was able to deal with America’s blessings in ways that perhaps my generation and subsequent ones have taken for granted and was able to overlook its contradictions and imperfections in ways with which we often struggle.
I’m not going to say I’m glad that my father wasn’t alive to witness the storming of our Capitol by a mob because that just sounds glib. I’m not glad my parent is gone. And it might have been — fun isn’t quite the word I’m looking for — energizing? to be two crazy adults yelling at the television over the latest Trump outrage over these past few years. We didn’t always agree on everything politically, but it was mostly a disagreement of degree, not doctrine. It seems that politics — like Judaism and baseball teams — can be inherited. (I’m a Red Sox fan by birth, and yes, it’s my Dad’s doing.)
In my father’s day, long before 24/7 news cycles and the rise of CNN, my dad was obsessed with the news. He used to speak lovingly of the family radio of his childhood and as an adult had talk radio on in the car whenever we drove somewhere. He watched television news as much as it was available, and the advent of CNN was a gift to him. One memorable summer, when we went away for a vacation on Padre Island, he spent it glued to the Watergate hearings, hardly venturing away from the screen. His distaste for Richard M. Nixon was palpable before he was ever elected, but Dad was truly upset by the shame he felt Nixon brought upon the office of the presidency, and in turn, upon the country.
I still remember him telling me, when Nixon resigned and Vice President Gerald R. Ford took his place as president, that this was what made America great. That we the people could remove a corrupt president — peacefully.
And we did so again at the ballot box this fall. Despite a contagious virus that made it difficult to vote and a president who cast aspersion on the very electoral process that led to a disturbing attempted coup. Our democracy— both fragile and resilient — has survived. For now.
The Star-Spangled Banner wasn’t always our national anthem. It was set to music well after the poem was published, and it wasn’t officially adopted as such until 1931, when my dad was still an infant! He never cared for it as the nation’s song. He preferred Kate Smith belting out Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. (You know, one written by a nice Jewish boy.)
Me, I’ll take the other song of our nation, This Land (Was Made for You and Me). It is among the best-known American folk songs, written by Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer — who as a Merchant Marine in the 1940s famously carried a guitar case emblazoned with “This machine kills fascists” (back when being anti-fascist wasn’t a slur). Like the Star-Spangled Banner, it has multiple verses, but most of us only know one or two. There are earlier versions critical of the United States’ response to the Depression, and Guthrie later rewrote the song in a more patriotic vein.
The version that has endured, the one we learned in school, in scouts, and at camp is the one Jennifer Lopez sang at the Biden-Harris inauguration, neatly bookending Lady Gaga’s anthem performance. It has withstood the test of time, probably because everyone who sings it hears their own version of patriotism wrapped in those words, “this land belongs to you and me.”
Let’s keep it that way.