Joe Biden has struggled with a stutter for most of his life. He has publicly described what that impediment does to a soul. So it is fitting that Biden ushered in his presidency with a speech about fragility, brokenness, and the possibility of overcoming the most intractable challenges. The speech was perhaps not a master class in public oratory. But it was a perfect mapping of language to self. He is what he speaks, from “C’mon man,” to “Look, folks.” And on Wednesday, he seemed to understand that his words weren’t just words. They were words wrested from his soul, offered up to all of us. As he put it, “My whole soul is in it today, on this January day.”
It is impossible to witness the transition from the Trump era to the Biden administration without reflecting on the power of words, the effort that goes into controlling one’s words, and the moral and political utility of finding precisely the right ones. This was a day of carefully chosen, hard-fought voice. It follows an age of careless, rash, heedless spew that tumbled forth from a leadership that believed words didn’t matter, or that they were so fluid as to mean everything and nothing. What a profound, audible, relief it is to bear witness to speeches wrenched from the mouths of those who have learned not to take them for granted.
There has been so much lying over these past four years. So much violence done to language, which is then cast as jokes or irony or merely what “other people” are saying. So much of our work of the past four years has been to find the bits of truth in the ash heap. That’s why it matters that Biden’s words today came from a tongue that used to fail him. He knows their power. They aren’t easy trinkets for him. And unlike Trump’s “American carnage” speech from four years ago—a speech full of lies about the Constitution and about freedom, lies he then toiled to make truth—Biden’s speech centered on what is real.
“There is truth and there are lies,” he said. “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 to protect our nation—to defend the truth and defeat the lies.” He closed his speech with a promise: “My fellow Americans, I close the day where I began, with a sacred oath. Before God and all of you, I give you my word. I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I’ll defend our democracy.”
His gave us his word. Which, in a moment when so many of us are broken from the lies—from the lies of the press secretaries to the lies of elected officials to the efforts to graft lies onto legal processes and democratic processes—felt like a revelation of possibility. Even with the enormous work that is surely ahead, the promise of truth as lodestar is something powerful and poetic.
Joe Biden was not the only one at this inauguration to understand how hard-won delivering one’s own words can be. Amanda Gorman, the poet laureate who cracked the inauguration ceremony into a million pieces with her poem, was also a child who overcame a speech impediment, by writing poems. Speaking to NPR about her struggles with pronunciation, she mentioned one of her predecessors, Maya Angelou, who also delivered an inaugural poem and was mute as a child.* “I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle, a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage at inauguration,” she said. “So it’s really special for me.” Gorman’s voice was perhaps the most poignant symbol for millions and millions of Americans who have been struggling to speak truth in the face of years of dark, pixelated nonsense.
As a project and a promise, reconnecting democracy to truth and to language seems both trivial and obvious. But that is where we currently are as a country. And it’s fitting in the extreme that this was a day of excavated, hard-fought words, and not pretty, easy fibs. It was an inauguration that challenged us to use language to understand what has happened to us, and what we must do to move forward now. “The new dawn blooms as we free it,” Gorman closed. “For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it—if only we are brave enough to be it.”
Correction, Jan. 25, 2021: Due to an editing error, the original version of this piece stated that Amanda Gorman overcame a stutter. The speech impediment Gorman overcame was dropping letters.