S1: The following podcast may contain explicit content, which is, I suspect, why many of you are tuning in in the first place.
S2: It’s Wednesday, January 20th, twenty twenty one from Slate’s The Gist. I’m Mike Pesca. Joe Biden, president of the United States, said, whoa, whoa, hold on. Joe Biden, president of the United States, we’ve done here. And that’s it for today. Shoshanna Roth, just producer, doesn’t want to wait a while to have a crocodile.
S1: Margaret Kelly says fudge tacos now. OK, fine. You knew the show wasn’t over. You could read the amount of time left on the file in your iPhone, though. We could just loop the phrase Joe Biden president a thousand times and fool you. Today at his inauguration, Joe Biden spoke words of healing. Kamala Harris spoke words of uplift. 22 year old poet Amanda Gorman leaned into slant rhymes of rhythm. Garth Brooks wore denim of reconciliation. Lady Gaga sported a large bird of peace, but also presumably back strain. It was a very Biden esque speech emphasizing our shared interests. Unity, togetherness, togetherness.
S3: Came up a couple of times, in fact, and I promise you this, as the Bible says, weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. We will get through this together together.
S1: This speech was good and necessary and right for the moment. And on the show, we will analyze Biden’s words and mostly praise them and do want to add and I am a little hesitant about that, but I want to add a little bit of not a sour note, but a cautionary note about a speech, a speech that was both elegiac and hopeful, that both admonished and uplifted and that that’s all proper.
S4: But no, this no, that Joe Biden is a decent man. Joe Biden is a kind person. And that’s important. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Now, I think Joe Biden does have the skills that it takes to lead, but they won’t be heard in a speech. They will be felt in proposals and policies and appointments and sometimes in cajoling and sometimes in rebutting a, to my mind, overly demanding left wing of his party. And I think to most fair observers mind an overly complacent, moderate wing of the Republican Party. And let’s not quibble about the idea of who’s a moderate when it comes to Republicans. I’m just saying as moderate as that party allows, the moderates as within the Republican Party will in fact be needed. And to get them on board, it will take tact, tactics and the tacit trust of all sides to craft actual achievements. Biden replaces a horrible president. There is hardly a pejorative that doesn’t aptly apply to Donald Trump. And Biden embodies many virtues that were the opposite of the flaws of Trump. But the opposite of indecency is decency. It’s not leadership. And the opposite of cruelty is kindness. It’s not solutions. Joe Biden told us today he is a good person who believes in the goodness of Americans. Within the next four years, enough Americans have to be virtuous, but also smart and strategic to make goodness win the day on the show today, I feel a little bit about Joe Biden’s outreach to Republicans, what it means, how it will work. But first, let us go over the inaugural address, if not line by line than theme by theme. Former presidential speechwriter for the Obama administration, Saradha Perry, is here to analyze.
S1: Joe Biden spoke to a nation today for the first time as president, he tried, as he always does, but for the first time from that perch, he tried to heal with his words. Did he try anything else? Was he successful? Joining me now is Sarah Perry, who is a former speechwriter for Barack Obama. She is here to analyze, clarify, expound upon the president’s remarks. Thanks for joining me, Saradha.
S5: Thanks for having me.
S1: I wasn’t that surprised, but I also think this was a time for not surprising the American public. So in terms of communicating his tone and vision, I would say Joe Biden should be quite pleased with the speech he delivered.
S6: What do you think?
S7: Yeah, I thought he knocked it out of the park. I mean, I’m biased because I wanted him to succeed. But but I think, look, I think a really great speech does sort of has three elements. It’s a great speech on paper, you know, beautifully written. It is delivered by a speaker who has credibility to convey that message. And it needs a moment that demands that person with that message. And you rarely get all three of those elements, even with inaugural addresses. I mean, most of them are pretty forgettable. But this speech kind of met all of those three criteria. I think so. I thought he did a beautiful job. And you’re right. I mean, it wasn’t surprising. You know, he basically was offering the same message that he’s he’s been offering for, you know, the half a century he’s been in public life. But but I think that the way he did it in this moment and the way he touched on sort of all the things that he needed to do for this moment was really compelling in this speech.
S6: He tried to communicate competency and decency, but that is not the stuff necessarily of soaring rhetoric. In fact, I thought he and his advisers probably made a choice. We’re not going to go for something that is ten out of ten. We’re not going to go for the rockets red glare, but we’re going to try to calm everyone down. But do you disagree? Do you think he was really going for it with this speech?
S7: I don’t disagree with you, but I don’t think that soaring rhetoric is necessarily what makes a really good speech. So although his tone was more sort of sober, which I think was appropriate for this moment, that’s certainly what President Obama did 12 years ago in his first inaugural. And frankly, in some ways, what FDR did in his first inaugural to meet the moment of sort of crisis and division. I still think that he did all the things he had to do and that the country sort of really needed to hear it. But to its credit, I thought that he in this speech, he did a couple of things that actually I was surprised by, like he referred to white supremacy. That actually did surprise me. Maybe it shouldn’t have. But I. I hadn’t. I didn’t I didn’t I didn’t know if he was going to sort of openly say that he said the word racism, which I checked Barack Obama never did during a speech.
S6: Now, he didn’t have to he would speak of the blood drawn by the sword and the lash. So we knew what he was talking about, but he was much more explicit. By the way, I looked it up. George W. Bush did mention the word racism, but he was much more explicit about these ills. Nativism, the word nativism was said much more explicit about these ills than maybe another candidate would have been.
S7: Yeah, I mean, and I guess that that sort of impressed me and surprised me. And I also think, you know, it’s funny because even just a few months ago at the convention, things were bad. But they are so much worse now. Right? I mean, last night they held a memorial for the 400000 people who are dead in large part because of Trump’s incompetence. And it is a different moment in that I think people feel really sort of fragile. We feel fragile as individuals against this disease. Our government sort of feels fragile. The things that bind us feel fragile. There’s just there there’s been this sense, especially in the weeks since since January 6th, a couple weeks since January 6th, that the whole system is fragile. And I think his sort of message of resilience, you know, that that section that he had, you know, here’s the thing about life. There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you, that whole section about some some days you need a hand on other days were called on to lend a hand like that. Very Joe Biden, you know, speaking from his own life, really right about him, certain. And sometimes you’re up and we can get through this together. That felt more relevant now and like reminding us of our resilience in a way that I think in in August, whether it was or July, it almost like we weren’t ready to hear that.
S8: But now I think we really needed to hear that, because here’s the thing about life. There’s no accounting for what fate will deliver some days when you need a hand. There are other days we were called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. It’s what we do for one another.
S6: Yeah, there was a lot of addressing of needs. At one point he said, I’m going to fight as hard for those who did not support me as those who did. He’s been saying this all along and you sense that he’s sincere about it.
S8: Yet here we clearly disagreement must not lead to this union. And I pledge this to you.
S3: I will be a president for all Americans, all Americans as a speechwriter.
S4: How do you how do you think the folksiness played? Literally him saying folks a couple of times.
S7: Has anybody ever said, folks, that it is not as great classics or better, but it’s not a speech without thought of Joe Biden’s speech, without the classic Joe Biden transition?
S8: We will get through this together together, folks.
S6: So that’s why it works. That’s why it works. Because it’s not it’s not as if the word folks is inherently good, but it is inherently Joe Biden. And authenticity is good.
S7: Totally. I mean, he sounds like himself. It almost sounded like a fireside chat, right? I mean, it was just Joe Biden talking to the American people. And I don’t I think that’s actually what this moment called for. I don’t think it called for soaring rhetoric or him sounding like someone he’s not. I think that he actually needed to sound the way he always does. And that’s what people wanted. And, you know, I could imagine a world where somebody would say that that’s kind of unpresidential, but I just don’t think that we’re in that world right now.
S6: Yeah, no, I mean, it didn’t that didn’t the president at the time, 12 hours ago, say when he was leaving, have a nice life.
S7: Oh, my God. What was so weird?
S6: So here’s another speechwriter question. Where are you on the Christmas technique in this speech? He said, it’s not the example of our power. It’s the power of our example classic, not what your country can do for you, what you could do for your country. We should put kids in Penn State, not the State. Penn is that old and hoary by now, or you need a couple of days to make it an official speech.
S7: I don’t think you need a couple of those to make an official speech, although you do need power, for example, because that is a Joe Biden classic. It’s something he says all the time. So you’ve got to have that. I mean, I’m all for these sort of rhetorical devices that make your speech a little bit more interesting and give it a little bit of lift, especially in a speech like this where there wasn’t that much rhetoric. I think it’s I think it’s fine to have the occasional reversible raincoat, but not but not.
S6: OK, so when you say not much rhetoric, you mean things like formal rhetorical techniques. It’s all redirect. Yeah, but interesting. Yeah. And the other thing is there are so many what I would consider cliches, but right now it’s all subjective. But after Donald Trump tore up norms, things like affirming democracy and saying the people have spoken and saying the phrase perfect union, those were more powerful than they usually are, let’s put it that way.
S7: Totally. Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know that I needed to hear them until he said it. And then I was like, right, right. That is true. You have just taken the sacred oath and the oath that George Washington took. Yes, correct. You know, I mean, like, I, I think that in a weird way, saying it’s like fake it till you make it like you just need it to say it to remind us that all this is true. And we aren’t some violently divided banana republic that is sinking under the weight of its own division, that we still have some things that we’re supposed to do, some, you know, these ceremonies that we hold in order to pass on this democracy like it.
S5: It did feel kind of necessary, if cliched, and it didn’t feel corny, like it could have felt cheesy, but it did, at least for me. Again, I’m super biased.
S6: But no, no, it’s we’re at a time when the norms have been shredded. So the guy who’s, you know, stitching together the norms, it’s not normal. It used to be normal. Right. But it’s reclaiming the normal. So it’s important and it’s different and it’s profound and it’s interesting. And I do think we need it.
S5: It may have even seemed a little bit much had January six not happen. But to stand I mean, just a couple of weeks ago, the capital was invaded. I mean, those pictures were so jarring and unsettling because we are a people who believe that it could never happen here. We just that is our sort of brand of exceptionalism. That kind of stuff happens elsewhere. And our democracy is self executing. So, you know, it’ll never happen here. And when it did happen here, I think I don’t know, I, for one, felt again going back to that fragility. And so, you know, him talking about sort of we’re standing in the shadow of the Capitol dome. I mean, just to kind of remind ourselves that we’re still here. This is how we’re supposed to go. We’re doing all the things to make it go smoothly. Sorry about that little mess. A couple of weeks ago, we’re going to we’re going to keep going, you know what I mean?
S1: Yeah, yeah. This was probably the speech that referenced events since the election more than any other inauguration. Off the top of my head, I’d say that that would have to be true. Yeah, that’s right. That’s all right. So I can’t recall exactly. But I do sense that if you had asked me I don’t know, I did a show then maybe I said it. If you’d asked me right after Donald Trump’s inauguration if the phrase American carnage stood out, I would have immediately said, you know, what the hell is this? Is there any phrase, any sentiment, anything that you think will be remembered from the actual content of the speech?
S5: Or is it just the overall gestalt of it, the overall gestalt of the thing, including Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem, sort of the entire the entirety of the of the event, I think will probably be remembered more than any particular lines. But there were some lines that stood out to me. And, you know, we must end this uncivil war I was struck by. The politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path just because it was so sort of vivid and specific. And then when he when he said it, my whole soul is in this that really that really struck me. I think just because I because I believe it when he says that I don’t believe I wouldn’t believe that from any politician, but I believe it from a divided. But overall, I think and honestly, I mean, I think the event would not have felt complete without Amanda.
S9: Anti-government poem We will rise from the gold limned hills of the West. We will rise from the windswept north east where our forefathers first realised revolution. We will rise from the lake rim cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun baked south. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover. And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful. When they comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there was always lights. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be in.
S6: You know, on that Amanda Gorman point, I think that maybe his presidency will reflect an instinct to step aside and let some others take center stage. Maybe Kamala Harris will play a bigger role. Maybe his members of the cabinet will play a huge role. And I just kind of think at this point, Joe Biden doesn’t have so much to prove either ego wise or, you know, tactically using the power of his personal persuasion. Maybe this inauguration will be a sign of that, where maybe others he defers to others who have the most spectacular moment.
S5: Yeah, he’s he’s totally a guy who doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Right. So, yeah, I think you’re right. I think that’s a that’s a really good spot on point. And there are plenty of people who could sort of be elevated in this moment. Yeah, of course, they will all eventually run against each other for for the Democratic nomination eventually. But but there’s so many. Yeah. Younger voices. And the truth is like what, Joe what Joe Biden does well is sort of build those relationships and do the back room sort of glad handling and working with Congress. And he’s going to have to go and rebuild relationships around the world. I mean, all the things that he has done for 50 years in public life, he’s going to have to sort of keep doing and he doesn’t necessarily need to go out there and do the kind of ceremonial or not even ceremonial, but just the sort of I guess there are there are room for other voices. To your point. There’s there’s plenty of room for other voices. And I mean, obviously, Kamala Harris is going to be one of those voices.
S6: Yeah. So finally, I had this thought. I’m sure it didn’t happen, but it would have been really cool if George W. Bush on the way out, leaned over to Hillary Clinton and said that was some normal shit that would have happened.
S1: Do we think it happened if it happened? I really have to begrudgingly say maybe George W. Bush wasn’t the worst. Well, we know it’s not the worst now.
S5: He’s not the worst. But isn’t it weird that we look back and and see him as, like the statesman? I just don’t even know how that happened.
S1: Right. The Cheney Bush family has any two families appreciated in our public consciousness more from the last four years than those do, honestly.
S5: I mean, it’s really jarring. And frankly, I thought that the fact that Biden and Harris could stand up there with all these smug, hypocritical Republicans from McConnell on down who are who just, you know, barely accepted the results of the election, was was pretty magnanimous for them, I thought.
S1: Yeah. And maybe it gives power to his words that we have to unite and move forward. I mean, just the very fact of them that just the very fact that he was gracious, gracious, showed that he was living the words he was saying.
S2: Yeah, yeah. Great. Saradha Perry is a former speechwriter for Barack Obama. This was great. Come on again, Saradha. Thanks for having me. Mike, this is Mike.
S1: And now the spiel today, Joe Biden talked to all Americans just as he conducted a campaign aimed at all Americans and no doubt will govern for the benefit of all Americans. This is in contrast to Donald Trump, whose words at his inaugural didn’t specifically say this is only for us, but did say to his people, this is for you. He told not all of us, but just the slice of us who voted for him that he was for them.
S10: Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.
S1: And he also said while they meaning the elites, which could mean anything while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you. And it was clear who the year was. It was the people who stormed the Capitol and proclaimed that this is the people’s house, this is our house, because they argued we are the people. We are the only real people. We’re taking it away from you. Joe Biden didn’t engage in any of that. He did the opposite.
S3: In fact, he explicitly said, and I pledge this to you, I will be a president for all Americans, all Americans.
S1: So while Trump spoke to his tens of millions and said they were the real Americans who were ascendant, Joe Biden mentioned his supporters but expanded out the circle of commitment.
S3: While those who supported our campaign. I’m humbled by the faith you’ve placed in us to all those who did not support us. Let me say this. Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America.
S1: So why? What does this mean? It could be read as naiveté that Joe Biden really thinks he’ll be able to work with Mitch McConnell during the campaign. A lot of Biden critics in the Democratic Party pointed to this belief. This belief in bipartisanship is Biden’s Achilles heel. That’s not how politics works these days. That’s how getting beaten at politics works. But maybe Biden’s outreach to those who didn’t vote for him doesn’t include the elected. It’s only for the electorate. So in that way, you could say he’s not naive. He knows that he can’t really share strides with Mitch McConnell. He has to run over. Mitch McConnell, a hard hearted Democrat, might hear Joe Biden’s words, think that they’re, you know, rhetoric that he’s not going to back up with actions or belief in the goodness of Mitch McConnell and say, that’s fine. It doesn’t really cost us much. Say you’re offering a hand, but make clear that that hand could take the shape of a fist. I don’t know about that, because, first of all, from what I know of Joe Biden, he does think he’s going to achieve some things with sizable Republican support. And I think he might be right. I don’t think it’ll be like when Everett Dirksen worked with John F. Kennedy. But I do think the Republican Party is at a place where actual achievements of some sort will be seen as good politics in a way they haven’t for the last 12 years. And if not, OK, there are 50 Democrats. If they hang together, the Republican objections will be much less relevant. And guess what? Mitch McConnell also knows this, but more than the politicians. Joe Biden, I think, is speaking to actual voters who might be Republicans, not trumpets, but Republicans, self-identified Republicans, maybe even self-identified independents who usually vote Republican. And they want to hear this message, this message is for them. But you know who else? It’s for this message that will work for Republicans. Reasonable Republicans will also work for Democrats. The message might even strike a chord in most Democrats.
S6: The popular idea, and it’s backed up by a lot of polls because we do live in a polarized age, not trying to make a pun there. But damn it, if I didn’t, the idea is that Democrats hate Republicans and Democrats. Their main complaint is worries getting rolled by Republicans. We’ve got a fight with bare knuckles like Republicans are so damn nice. We get our lunch handed to us by Republicans over and over. It’s time for us to stand up to them. And if you say that, you’ll get a huge cheer at a meeting of Democrats. But you know what?
S1: There are a lot of Democrats. You know, there’s some truth to that, those assertions. And maybe they even know that Republicans say the same thing about Democrats and that they truly mean it. But there are a lot of Democrats who do want to think of themselves as reasonable people who really can work with people that they disagree with. They’re the kind of people who believe in civic institutions, who believe in the League of Women Voters, who are the kinds of people who listen to public radio. And they appreciate when a trusted host has on a high minded conservative and they have a thoughtful conversation through the kinds of people these Democrats are who have Republican friends and not only don’t hate them for being Republicans, but actually find it useful to try to take their perspective from time to time. I’m not talking about trumpets. I’m talking about respectful, productive conversations with Republicans. Many of these Democrats may have voted for a Republican at some time in their life. Maybe they live in Massachusetts or Maryland or Utah and they like their Republican governor. And you know who else these people have a natural affinity for? Joe Biden. When I said they’re local NPR hosts had high minded conversation with a thoughtful conservative. A large percentage of this audience said no such thing as a thoughtful conservative. But another person said, oh, yeah, that makes sense. That’s what I like to Joe Biden’s words are for that cohort. And these people, we’re the people who actually were enthused to vote for Joe Biden. Joe Biden’s outreach to Republicans works a little like when a Republican politician might say some antiracist words or give a speech on racial reconciliation that seems to come from a good place. Is the idea that, oh, because that Republican does that, that he’ll win over a bunch of African-American voters? That’s not primarily the idea. Primarily the idea is to talk to white voters who don’t want to be seen as racist and give them permission to say, oh, this guy seems OK, seems like a non racist as I define it. And Joe Biden is at least giving moderate Democrats and Republicans and independents permission to say this guy doesn’t seem so bad. If I vote for him, if I support his policies, I’m not so bad or I’m pretty good. I’m the kind of person who has productive, thoughtful conversations and can make agreements with people I even disagree with. Here’s an unspoken slogan that I think one, Joe Biden, the presidency, Joe Biden, he doesn’t hate you. And that is a pretty useful and unusual place to occupy in today’s politics.
S2: And that’s it for today’s show, Shane Roth produces the gist. She remembers James Garfield’s words at his inauguration. I believe it is the right and duty of the United States to a certain maintain such supervision and authority over the Interoceanic Canal, across the isthmus that connects North and South America as will protect our national interest. So true. Margaret Kelly, just producer. She thinks of Grover Cleveland’s words, the second inaugural, not the first quote. It behooves us to constantly watch for every symptom of insidious infirmity that threatens our national vigor. Mara, if you know Margaret, she hates a threat to bigger. Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Her favorite inaugural quote comes from McKinley. One of the lessons taught by the late election, which all can rejoice in, is that the citizens of the United States are both law respecting and law abiding people not easily swerved from the path of patriotism and honor. Only use of the word swerved in an inauguration. The gist, to quote Franklin Pierce. And I think you know what I’m going to say, offices can be properly regarded only in the light of AIDS for the accomplishment of these objects. And his occupancy can confer no prerogative nor importunate desire for preferment. Any claim the public interest imperatively demands that they be considered with sole reference to the duties to be performed. Hussar, Peru. And thanks for listening.