"The American carnage stops right here, right now."
—Donald Trump, Jan. 20, 2017
Promise made, promise to be kept … by the next guy.
Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States at 11:48 a.m. on Wednesday, 12 minutes before the time spelled out in a U.S. Constitution that was mutilated by his predecessor but still stands. As Biden raised his 78-year-old right arm to take the oath of office, he stood just yards from the broken windows and impromptu plywood of the U.S. Capitol where just 14 days earlier a violent mob killed a police officer in its quest to stop this moment from happening.
For the 45th time in the last 225 years, the flickering torch of democracy was passed to a new American president, but no one should call this transition peaceful. The aura of normalcy as Biden repeated the familiar oath from Chief Justice John Roberts with his wife, Jill Biden, by his side contrasted with the unprecedented force of 25,000 troops in and around a hastily constructed, Baghdad-style "green zone" in the nation's capital, and with the palpable absence of his 82 million voters told to stay home, replaced on the National Mall by 200,000 American flags that didn't have to socially distance from a deadly virus.
As the noon hour that so many Americans had been awaiting for four years finally arrived and snow flurries gave way to bright sunshine, Biden — occasionally punctuated by the "folks" or "look" of his down-home Joe-from-Scranton persona — promised a deeply divided nation that it will somehow come together once again, even after the failed insurrection and amid the overlapping crises of a pandemic, ongoing unemployment and hunger, climate change and racial reckoning.
"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue," Biden said, in what quickly became the most quoted phrase in his roughly 20-minute address. And — as anyone who watched his methodical march on the White House in 2015 and 2016 would fully expect — the speech was drenched in pleas for national unity.
But the most hopeful turn was the new president's realization — forged in the blood-soaked aftermath of the Jan. 6 assault — that a common purpose won't be possible without the difficult work of pushing Americans toward a common truth.
"The recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson," Biden said. "There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies."
The game of no truth and consequences dragged into the morning of Biden's big day. After weeks of worry that he'd have to be dragged out of the Oval Office by Secret Service agents, Donald Trump instead slinked out of Washington pretty much the same way he arrived — as a cheesy TV "reality" star presiding over a make-believe America that was grounded in anything but reality.
Arriving at Andrews Air Force Base to a blaring, what-the-hell soundtrack of Trump-selected tunes like "The House of the Rising Sun," "Fortunate Son" (about rich kids dodging the Vietnam draft) and Laura Branigan's "Gloria," the 45th president gave one last rambling monologue about four years that never happened. He hailed the creation of a Space Force as an epic achievement but skipped over 400,000 coronavirus deaths, two impeachments and one attempted coup, then told America to "have a good life," a line he plagiarized from Sam's goodbye to Diane on TV's "Cheers."
As Trump and his wife, Melania, climbed the red carpet into Air Force One for the last time to the strains of the Village People's "YMCA," a work crew was steam-cleaning the White House right down to the drapes in the Oval Office, a practical nod to the COVID-19 pandemic that festered under Trump's watch and a metaphoric necessity after the moral stain of a president's nonstop lying.
A long national nightmare thus ended, just as it did on a hot August day in 1974 when Richard Nixon boarded a helicopter en route to San Clemente, Calif. But Nixon was pardoned for his Watergate crimes weeks later by his successor Gerald Ford — inaugurating an era of failing to hold corrupt elites to account.
Nixon's pardon led to the multiple pardons of Ronald Reagan's Iran-contra affair, which led to the lack of any consequences for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for lying America into the Iraq war, or for the Wall Street grifters who crashed the economy. Today, the Lost Causes of Trump's stolen-election-that-wasn't and a Jan. 6 "revolution" that was really a coup will remain a cancer on America unless the coup plotters are punished and their lies demolished.
In his first hours on the job, Biden is already reaching for the low-hanging fruit of reality — that we won't stop Americans from dying from coronavirus unless everyone wears a mask, and that we're not serious about climate change if we allow obscene fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.
Dealing with the Big Lie around a stolen election and developing a truth vaccine for the insane conspiracy theory of QAnon that has virally infected millions of American minds is going to be much harder. Team Biden, including his designated Attorney General Merrick Garland, will have to make difficult choices about prosecuting Trump, his aides and even members of Congress who may have aided on Jan. 6.
And this must be done before the necessary push for national unity, because as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — whom the nation just honored on Monday — said, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
Joe Biden would not have become the 46th president were it not for his best quality — his lifelong ability to learn from the trials and tragedies he has witnessed and endured. The most resounding note at Wednesday's inauguration didn't come from Lady Gaga or Garth Brooks, but from what Biden seems to have finally grasped after he watched democracy's near-death experience two weeks ago.
That this nation will not have peace without justice. That empathy is empty without accountability. And that American carnage cannot be healed until we can handle the truth.