One of the great tragedies of the past year, as some 400,000 Americans lost their lives to Covid-19, was not only that many victims died alone — their loved ones robbed of the chance to say goodbye — but that the pain of that loss was whitewashed by a President who chose to minimize and deny it.
In a somber ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday night that was his first stop in Washington, President-elect Joe Biden signaled that honoring that grief and the terrible toll of the last year would be at the very heart of his administration. Elected because of his empathy and his compassion for Americans, who are suffering through a confluence of crises that have created a time of great uncertainty, Biden spoke just a few words as the sun set over the National Mall, casting a rosy glow in the twilight.
The President-elect told Americans he shared in their grief — with his own understanding deepened by the loss of his first wife and daughter in a car accident as a young man and the loss of his son Beau to cancer at the age of 46.
“It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation,” Biden said in brief remarks before 400 lights were illuminated along the edges of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, marking the more than 400,000 Americans who have died from Covid-19.
He and his wife, Jill Biden, watched in silence, alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, as the reflections of the lights glimmered in the water. Hundreds of towns, cities and communities across the country joined in the tribute, lighting up buildings from the Empire State Building in New York to the Space Needle in Seattle. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, delivered the invocation and gospel singer Yolanda Adams performed “Hallelujah” after Biden spoke.
Harris spoke briefly at the memorial, noting that “for many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.”
“Though we may be physically separated, we, the American people, are united in spirit and my abiding hope, my abiding prayer, is that we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom: to cherish simple moments, to imagine new possibilities and to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another,” Harris said.
Biden and Harris come to Washington
The President-elect arrived in Washington, DC, on Tuesday for the start of his inaugural ceremonies at a dark moment in American history, preparing to take his oath of office as the US passes 400,000 coronavirus deaths and is more divided than at any time since the Civil War.
As he departed for the nation’s capital earlier in the day, Biden gave an emotional farewell to his home state of Delaware, his voice breaking at times as he thanked the state’s residents for believing in him and standing with him throughout his career.
“I’ll always be a proud son of the state of Delaware,” Biden said at the Delaware National Guard headquarters in New Castle County. “Excuse the emotion,” he said, tears streaming down his face, “but when I die, Delaware will be written on my heart and the hearts of all of us — all the Bidens. We love you all. You’ve been there for us in the good and the bad.”
He gave a moving tribute to his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46, stating that he had hoped to see his son become president one day.
“We should be introducing him as president,” he said.
The President-elect also noted the historical arc of his career witnessing the civil rights struggle as well as signs of progress in the United States. He said he came home to Wilmington, Delaware, from law school after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — inspired by the turmoil to become a public defender. In 2009, he made the journey to Washington with Barack Obama, who became the nation’s first Black president. And he is returning to Washington, DC, this week “to meet a Black woman of South Asian descent, to be sworn in as President and vice president of the United States. That’s America,” he said Tuesday.
The nation’s continuing struggles for equality and racial justice also drew Biden into the 2020 presidential race. He has said he decided to seek the highest office after watching President Donald Trump’s dismissive handling of the deadly White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Now intent on healing a deeply fractured country, Biden’s task has never seemed more daunting after Trump incited a riot with his lies that the presidential election was stolen, which led an armed mob to storm the Capitol on January 6 and resulted in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the mob was “provoked” by Trump, in a remarkable final rebuke of the President after four years in which Republicans have often stayed silent in the face of the President’s misdeeds.
“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “They were provoked by the President and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”
But McConnell noted that democracy had prevailed, even in the face of violent threats, and that Congress carried out its duties by certifying the election: “We’ll have a safe and successful inaugural right here on the very front of the Capitol,” he said.
McConnell argued that the November election “did not hand any side a mandate for sweeping ideological change,” given the closely divided Senate and House. But he said Republicans would seek common ground with Democrats as Biden takes office: “We are to pursue bipartisan agreement everywhere we can, and check and balance one another, respectfully, where we must.”
Washington locked down
Biden had hoped to infuse his arrival in Washington with a nostalgic twist by riding the rails from his home in Delaware, but that was deemed too much of a security risk at a time when the nation is facing threats from within. Instead the President-elect will arrive in a capital city Tuesday that has been transformed into a fortress with more than 20,000 National Guard troops securing the streets and protecting buildings that symbolize the enduring history of democracy in this country, which has seemed very much in peril in recent weeks.
CNN’s Pentagon team reported Tuesday afternoon that 12 National Guard members have been removed from inauguration duty as federal authorities vet those who are stationed in Washington, DC, to secure the ceremonies. Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson told CNN that two of the individuals were flagged due to “inappropriate” comments and texts, while another 10 were removed for questionable behavior found during the vetting. Col. Michael Dugas, provost marshal of the National Guard Bureau, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Tuesday that at least 17,000 members have been vetted so far.
With the twice-impeached Trump still prowling the White House — fuming about his election grievances and upcoming trial in the US Senate as he prepares to leave for Palm Beach, Florida, before the new President is sworn in Wednesday — Biden hopes to shift the nation’s attention to his agenda for halting the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerating the troubled vaccine rollout and rebuilding a struggling economy that has left millions unemployed.
Honoring Covid victims
The President-elect has been working on the inauguration speech that he will deliver at the US Capitol on Wednesday, which will mark the beginning of his effort to unite the country after four dark and tumultuous years under Trump, who is skipping the ceremony.
The Covid-19 pandemic had already forced organizers to reimagine the day’s ceremonies, including the traditional swearing-in of the new president on the West Front of the Capitol. Those plans were complicated by the January 6 siege of the Capitol by Trump supporters, who shattered glass and ravaged the historic building, forcing the Secret Service to keep plans in flux to ensure that traditional transfer of power will transpire peacefully and safely. In that unnerving environment, the military has been intensely vetting the National Guard troops to make sure there are no bad actors who would do harm during this week’s ceremonies.
With Trump’s decision to duck out of Washington Wednesday morning to fly to Florida, he has dispensed with both with the traditional welcome of the incoming President and first lady at the North Portico and the joint ride over to the Capitol for the ceremony.
Instead, Trump took the unusual step of asking staff to arrange a sendoff of his own at Joint Base Andrews, suggesting that he’d like to see a red carpet, a Color Guard and a 21-gun-salute.
On Wednesday, Biden will attend church at St. Matthews in Washington, DC, with all four top congressional leaders from both parties. The President-elect will also lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, joined by former President Barack Obama and and first lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, and former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.