On Jan. 20, 2021, Joseph Biden will take the presidential oath to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution. Given the pandemic, Biden's inaugural ceremony will not enjoy the usual pageantry. Even with a subdued ceremony though, Biden's inaugural address will be of enormous significance.
Like his predecessors, Biden will use the address to try to bridge the country's fissures, ease fears and give hope. Biden, however, must use the speech to deal with a task few predecessors faced: restoring the institution of the presidency. For help, Biden should seek out someone well-known to Minnesotans: former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Mondale emerged on the national scene as his party's vice presidential nominee in 1976, shortly after the Watergate scandal. As today, the presidency had deteriorated. Former President Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace, had repeatedly shown contempt for the law.
While Mondale never gave an inaugural address, in accepting the nomination to be Jimmy Carter's running mate, he had pledged to always "tell the truth and obey the laws."
Years later, Mondale was asked about the legacy of the Carter-Mondale administration. He could have pointed to the many policy accomplishments, but chose to simply observe: "We obeyed the law. We told the truth. We kept the peace." These 12 words are now memorialized at the Carter library.
On how to discuss many issues, Biden could look to many earlier inaugural addresses for guidance. But he would be wise to emulate Mondale's understated tone in addressing the recent disintegration of the presidency.
Inaugural addresses go back to the founding of the country. They provide a vision for the nation. We carry the echoes of inaugural addresses with us: "… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (Roosevelt, 1933); "… ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" (Kennedy, 1961); "… government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem" (Reagan, 1981).
Some inaugural addresses reflect a workmanlike approach. Truman, like Biden, was the "common man's common man." His address merely focused on a clear, achievable four-point program. Today, the country appears ready once again for a short list of straightforward steps to extricate America from the current health and economic quicksand. Save the rhetorical flourishes for another day.
With regard to the current economic crisis, Biden might take note of Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural speech. Against the backdrop of the Depression, FDR laid out the problems facing the country and pivoted to hopeful language. He told a country desperate for governmental action that, if working with the Congress failed, he was prepared to act unilaterally.
Biden might look to how previous addresses attempted to deal with the nation's frayed fabric. Dwight Eisenhower began his first inaugural address with a prayer that included asking for "cooperation" from those holding "differing political faiths."
During their addresses, Jimmy Carter thanked his predecessor, Gerald Ford, for his efforts to heal the country; Ronald Reagan thanked Carter for carrying on the peaceful transition of power with "gracious cooperation;" George W. Bush thanked his predecessor Bill Clinton for his service and his opponent Al Gore for ending the election contest with "grace."
Unfortunately, given the pouty, self-dealing, anti-democratic conduct of our current president, Biden may be hard pressed to thank him for anything. Nevertheless, Biden needs to acknowledge having heard the voices of those who did not vote for him.
Biden might benefit from a review of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. In that address, which took place shortly before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln urged reconciliation "with malice toward none, with charity for all … ." Biden must try to reconcile those on both sides shouting "Lock 'em up" if he truly hopes to be president for all Americans.
As difficult a period as the country is experiencing, much about it is not new. A divided nation facing an economic downturn and enemies of many sorts has historical precedent. What is rare, however, is the extent to which the presidency has been diminished by the deceitful behavior of the person now holding the office. On this score, Biden would do well to turn to Mondale.
When Mondale spoke of "obeying the law" and "telling the truth" he was talking to a jaundiced public betrayed by revelations concerning Watergate and lies about the Vietnam War. Today, after four years of scofflaw behavior, the country appears to be developing a crusty indifference to presidential misconduct. Biden's concern should be that our current president's "catch me if you can" approach to legal compliance will become the country's norm.
When Biden takes the 35-word oath to "faithfully execute the Office of President …" and to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution, it must mean something. Biden must lead the country back to being alarmed when any temporary resident of the Oval Office ignores plain duty.
Mondale also emphasized telling the truth. Before 2016, the public had an expectation that what they heard from the presidential podium was fairly truthful. Perhaps the public's belief that a president acts with fidelity emanates from the story of young George Washington's "I cannot tell a lie" — or from watching Morgan Freeman movies and "West Wing" episodes. No matter the source, the current president exploited the public perception that occupants of the Oval Office take their oath seriously.
Acting like a combination of Elmer Gantry, Bernie Madoff and Henry Higgins, he stood behind the presidential seal and spewed untruths like a Gatling gun, untruths which large members of the public believe because, well, he is the president after all.
In his inaugural address, Biden must not fuzz the line between fiction and nonfiction. He must use his inaugural address to emphasize that candor and obedience to the law will be the foundation of his presidency.
When considering the opportunity to serve as vice president in 2008, Biden said that Mondale was the first person he called. He should call Mondale again.
Robert Moilanen is a retired lawyer who served on the staff of Vice President Walter Mondale.