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'We Have Been Here Before, And Have Overcome': This Is The Inaugural Address Joe Biden Should Give

A view from the lower west terrace door as preparations are made for a dress rehearsal for the 59th inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden will be sworn-in as the 46th president on January 20th. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A view from the lower west terrace door as preparations are made for a dress rehearsal for the 59th inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden will be sworn-in as the 46th president on January 20th. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Author's Note: Given two national imperatives that are in tension — unity and condemning systemic white supremacy — here's what I'd like to hear in Joe Biden's inaugural address on Wednesday.

My fellow Americans,

Permit me to open with a pop quiz: Which former U.S. president actually gloated when a political opponent burned to death?

The ghoul would be John Adams, who privately rejoiced over a critical writer’s incineration in a house fire. For all his founding contributions, our second president could nurse a grudge, a vice worsened by his bitter re-election loss to Thomas Jefferson, whose inauguration he skipped. If this reminds you of a certain someone today, and of the maelstrom of division we’ve been through in recent months, this story offers comfort to our nation on edge:

We have been here before, and have overcome.

The American story is about a genetically querulous people struggling perpetually between our basest sins and highest aspirations. We saw that two weeks ago today, when criminals burlesquing as patriots desecrated democracy on this very spot, leading to the unprecedented second impeachment of a president.

The Capitol riot shocked us; it might have been less shocking to Adams and Jefferson, who lived amid tumult that threatened to strangle their newborn nation in its crib. How their era handled the crisis offers lessons for us.

Americans in the 1790s were splitting into political parties, which the Founders considered toxic. Violence erupted over a tax on spirits and over a treaty some damned as a sell-out to England. After Adams became president, a Tennessee senator was impeached for conspiring to help Britain annex Louisiana. The president thought insurrection so nigh that he jailed critics for exercising their First Amendment right to criticize him.

We have been here before, and have overcome.

Voters in their wisdom elected Jefferson, who at his swearing-in — our first peaceful, partisan transition of presidential power — extended an olive branch to his opponents. So do I — to law-abiding Trump supporters, not the criminal hooligans who ransacked the Capitol. Let me address the first group.

You consider me a card-carrying member of the “elite.” I’ve been blessed, certainly. Yet my first wife and daughter died in a senseless car accident; brain cancer killed my son Beau at age 46. Like many of you, I’ve known suffering. Bonded by this common humanity to all, I will be the president of all, including those who didn’t support me.

Exhibit A: my COVID-19 plan. It ramps up vaccinations and gives financial help in states blue and red. It will begin to put this plague and its pauperization of our people behind us.

“The minority possess their equal rights,” Jefferson said at his inauguration. Like him, I pledge “equal and exact justice to all men” — and women — ”of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.” That includes not just Trump supporters but Americans of color, shamefully denied “equal and exact justice.” The race-based panic attack gripping too many whites rests on a delusion. Privilege — of wealth, rights, personal safety — has never been a zero-sum game; it can be extended to all Americans without taking it from whites.

Most Americans get this. A fringe of Donald Trump’s base cannot. But talk of a second Civil War is facile. Genuine insurrectionists are dangerous but few. One psychologist who studies violent fanatics says they crave respect and see mayhem as a way to become significant. She suggests addressing inequality and using civic institutions to foster dignity. I will ask Congress to strengthen our safety net, and I’m all for civic engagement. But those alone won’t have the D.C. dead-enders singing “Kumbaya.” Not when they were willing to kill a police officer, conspired to assassinate officials, flaunted racist symbols, and sheepishly worship a man some call GEOTUS: “God Emperor of the United States.”

Violent white supremacy is not just a cry for respect. It is, Homeland Security says, our most “lethal” domestic terrorism threat.

We have been here before, and have overcome.

Look at another era in our history. The Ku Klux Klan ran a reign of terror after the Civil War. Flood-the-zone law enforcement and intelligence gathering crushed it. The Biden-Harris administration will blowtorch bigoted criminality in the same way.

Racism and violence nestling with stupidity in thuggish minds, the Capitol mob left us a veritable Ken Burns documentary of its assault. Having condemned the leniency shown rioters by police that day, I now applaud law enforcement’s running hundreds of them to ground. That manhunt will continue. Like Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Grant, I’ll supplement law enforcement with troops if necessary.

I call on Congress to pass pending legislation to expand intelligence-gathering about white supremacy in law enforcement. Totally defunding the police is a pipedream — social workers could not have repelled the mob — and many fine officers protect and serve regardless of citizens’ race. But too many don’t; it’s documented.

Pass another bill offering federal training and resources to state and local police for investigating and stopping domestic terrorism, including in online games, where white supremacists seek to pervert our children’s minds.

The KKK flowered again in the hothouse of 20th-century Jim Crow hate, as leaders sat on their duffs and consciences. Vice President Harris and I won’t repeat their blunder. Rather, we will take heart from three simple words that echo over centuries — sometimes spoken, always lived — as the American anthem: We shall overcome.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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