A New Era Begins on Inauguration Day

By Terrance Turner

Jan. 20, 2021

Today, in an inauguration unlike any other, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar served as an emcee of sorts. The morning featured a performance of the national anthem by Lady Gaga (who campaigned with Biden in Pennsylvania). Clad in a black turtleneck and dramatic red hoop skirt (with a voluminous train), Gaga delivered a masterful version of the anthem that was alternately operatic and soaring.

And then came one of the morning’s most crucial moments. Kamala Harris was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States. Harris became the first female, first Black, and first Indian-American to become Vice President. She was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — the first Latina on the Court.

As Vice President, Harris becomes president of the Senate. Her work begins today. This afternoon, she will be in the U.S. Capitol to execute her constitutional role and swear in three new Democratic senators: Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the two Democrats elected in a Georgia special election this month, and Alex Padilla, her own successor to the California seat she resigned on Monday. But this morning, she ascended to the second-highest office in the land.

Harris used two Bibles in the ceremony, according to NPR. The first belonged to Regina Shelton, a family friend whom Harris saw as a second mother. Harris used this Bible before when she took the oath of office as both California attorney general and U.S. senator. The second Bible was was owned by the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black member of the Supreme Court.

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Vice President Kamala Harris takes her oath of office. Photo from Reuters.

As NPR noted, the vice president’s oath of office is slightly different from the president’s. It’s the oath typically taken by members of Congress. And it was that oath with which Vice President Kamala Harris sealed her place in American history.

“I, Kamala Devi Harris, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Another performance followed, with Jennifer Lopez delivering a mellifluous medley of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful”. Growing increasingly impassioned after a gentle beginning, Lopez recited part of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish (!) towards the end. “Una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos!” she enthused, in a nod to her Puerto Rican roots. “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Her all-white pantsuit ensemble drew praise from ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos.

Also making waves on the fashion front was country singer Garth Brooks. Mr. Brooks came down the stairs, arriving at this black-tie event in a cowboy hat, black suit jacket, and blue jeans. His inclusion came as a surprise, given his conservative country roots. But Brooks made his intentions clear days ago:  “This is not a political statement. This is a statement of unity.” And unite he did.

Removing his hat, Brooks sang a spellbinding a cappella version of “Amazing Grace”. He asked the crowd outside and those at home to sing the final verse with him. His stunning performance was followed by an equally stunning move — a warm-hearted flouting of social distancing. Upon finishing the song, Brooks shook hands with Biden, former VP Mike Pence and Vice President Harris. Then, remarkably, Brooks — a Republican — ran over and hugged former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Clintons.

Afterward, Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts did the swearing-in. Biden placed his hand on a Bible that, according to the New York Times, has been in his family for 128 years. With his hand on that Bible and his wife by his side, Biden, 78, became the oldest president to take office.

Biden was sworn in with a 35-word oath of office at 11:49 am EST, just 11 minutes before the constitutional deadline at noon. He swore: “I, Joseph R. Robinette Biden Jr., do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”

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President Joe Biden is sworn in as president by Justice John Roberts.

Shortly afterward, Biden delivered his inaugural address. It was a cogent, compelling call for unity and healing. “This is America’s day,” Biden began. “This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope, or renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause: the cause of democracy.

The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” The crowd broke into applause. Biden continued:

“So now, on this hallowed ground — where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation — we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries. We look ahead in our uniquely American way – restless, bold, optimistic – and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.” Biden noted that “the American way depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On ‘We the People’, who seek a more perfect union.”

“This is a great nation and we are a good people,” Biden stressed. “Over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we have come so far. But we still have far to go. We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility.

Much to repair.

Much to restore.

Much to heal.

Much to build.

And much to gain.

“Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now,” Biden went on. “A once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed.

A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront and we will defeat.”

“To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: unity.”

Unity.

It was the name of the game throughout Biden’s address. “With unity we can do great things, Important things,” he said. “We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.

I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.”

Biden continued: “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.

This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. And, we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together. And so today, at this time and in this place, let us start afresh. All of us.

Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And, we must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured. My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this.

And, I believe America is better than this.

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. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our Republic, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength.”

“Yet hear me clearly,” he said. “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”

“And I pledge this to you: I will be a President for all Americans.”

“I understand that many Americans view the future with some fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs, about taking care of their families, about what comes next. I get it. But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you do, or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do.

We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” Biden said. And in a moving display of his own heart, Biden’s first act as president was asking Americans to join him in a moment of silence for the 400,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus.

Those Americans were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, Biden reminded us. They were our neighbors, our friends, and our co-workers, he said. “We will honor them by becoming the people and nation we know we can and should be.”

It was an elegant, eloquent speech; Chris Wallace (of Fox News!) said it was the best inaugural address he’d ever heard. But the day’s most memorable moment belonged to 22-year-old Amanda Gorman.

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony : News Photo
Amanda Gorman delivers the inaugural poem on Jan. 20, 2021. Photo by Patrick Semansky.

Today, Gorman became the youngest person ever to deliver a poem at an inauguration. In a spellbinding speech that lasted nearly six minutes, she captivated the nation. She spoke of the need to both acknowledge the past and to repair it. She referenced the deadly Capitol riot that killed five people (at last count) and which symbolized an attack on democracy — in the very same area in which she and Biden spoke. In rhythmic, mesmeric, lyrical prose, she met the moment.

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice.

And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We, the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.

[…]

We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb,
If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.

“The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gourmand

Joe Biden Chooses Kamala Harris As Running Mate

By Terrance Turner

August 11, 2020 (updated Aug. 12)

Democratic presidential frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden has chosen Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate. Biden announced his VP pick on Twitter. In an email to supporters, he wrote:  “I need someone working alongside me who is smart, tough, and ready to lead. Kamala is that person.” Harris is the first Black woman AND first Indian-American on a Democratic presidential ticket. (Or any major-party ticket, for that matter.)

It is the latest of many firsts for Harris, 55. The daughter of an Indian scientist mother and a Jamaican economist father, she is the first person in her family born in the United States, according to ABC News reporter Terry Moran. Harris was the first woman to be elected as district attorney for San Francisco in 2003. She later became the first Black person and first woman to serve as California Attorney General in 2010. (Harris won re-election in 2014 with 57% of the vote.)

When she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris was only the second African-American* woman to serve in that house. As a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Senate Judiciary Committees, Harris earned attention for her tough, probing style of questioning, underscoring her record as a prosecutor. Those skills were on special display during the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Though she is the fourth woman on a presidential ticket (Clinton, Palin, Ferraro), Harris is the first non-white woman, according to The Sunday Times. Now, Kamala Harris could become the first Black woman (and first South Asian) to serve as Vice President of the United States of America.

Moran said today that Biden and Harris will appear together tomorrow in Wilmington (in Biden’s home state of Delaware). It is the first step in what once appeared to be an unlikely partnership. At a Democratic debate last year (in Miami), Harris went after Biden for waxing poetic about working with segregationist senators. “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” she said.

But Harris also went after Biden for his stance opposing federal funding for desegregated busing. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal government could withhold funding from districts that refused to integrate blacks and whites — integration including school busing. Biden opposed that approach, arguing that it would lead to racial unrest. He teamed up with segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms for a failed anti-busing amendment in 1975. The next year, Biden moved to bar the Justice Department from pursuing busing-related cases. The New York Times revealed that between 1975 and 1982, Biden introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at limiting courts and the feds from mandating busing.

Harris took Biden to task for that — and for working with senators like Helms. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said, growing emotional. “And that little girl was me.”

Biden, apparently blindsided by the comment, argued Harris had mischaracterized his position. His wife, Dr. Jill Biden, was also hurt, saying that Harris’ attack was a “punch to the gut”. But Harris endorsed Biden in March. And just two weeks ago, at a speech in Wilmington, Biden offered a telling clue. As he approached the podium, Biden’s handwritten notes were snapped by an Associated Press photographer. Sen. Kamala Harris’ name was scrawled across the top. Right under her name, Biden had written: “Do not hold grudges.”

Biden’s notes were captured by an AP photographer at a speech in Wilmington on July 28. (Photo via AP.)

Today (Aug. 12), the two made their first joint appearance as running mates in Delaware; both shed some light on what brought them together.

One key factor in Biden choosing Harris was her friendship with his son Beau Biden (who died of brain cancer in 2015). Harris and Beau Biden were attorneys general during the same time period. “They took on the same big fights together. Kamala in California. Beau here in Delaware — big fights that helped change the entire country,” Joe Biden said today. “I know how much Beau respected Kamala and her work, and that mattered a lot to me, to be honest with you, as I made this decision.”

“Beau and I spoke on the phone practically every day — sometimes multiple times a day,” Harris said in her remarks this afternoon. “Beau was the kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves. He really was the best of us. And when I would ask him, ‘Where’d you get that? Where did this come from?’ He’d always talk about his dad. And I will tell you, the love that they shared was incredible to watch.” 

Beyond their heart-tugging memories of Beau, the two bonded over mutual goals and mutual admiration. Biden praised Harris as smart, tough, and experienced. “She knows how to govern,” Biden said, “and she’s ready to do the job on day one.” Harris in turn praised Biden as warm and compassionate. “His empathy, his compassion, his sense of duty to care for others is why I am so proud to be on this ticket,” Harris said.

But they both also saw this election in dramatic, game-changing terms. Biden reiterated that the 2020 election is “a battle for the soul of the nation”. Harris was similarly sweeping: “This is a moment of real consequence for America,” she said. “Everything we care about — our economy, our health, our children, the kind of country we live in — it’s all on the line.”

And, of course, they both took aim at Donald Trump. Biden called out Trump for his low-blow attacks on Harris (he called her “nasty”, “phony”, and “disrespectful” yesterday). “Is anyone surprised that Donald Trump has a problem with strong women?” Biden said. He added some jabs at the president’s work with the economy, too: “Trump is on track to leave office with the worst jobs record of any American president in modern history.”

Harris, too, lacerated Trump’s economic record. “The President’s mismanagement of the pandemic has plunging us into the worst economic crisis since the great depression,” Harris said. “He inherited the longest economic expansion in history from Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground.”

“This is what happens when we elect a guy who just isn’t up for the job,” Harris said. “Our country ends in tatters and so does our reputation around the world.”

Of course, they both discussed the topic of race. Harris said that “we are experiencing a moral reckoning with racism and systemic injustice that has brought a new coalition of conscience to the streets of our country.” Biden noted that today is the third anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, which featured Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists marching down streets of Virginia. The event led to racially charged violence: a group of white nationalists beat up a black University of Virginia student and then sued him for assault. (Trump famously defended the white supremacists as “very fine people”.) That moment, which spurred Biden to enter the race, came into sharp relief today.

But Biden cited Harris’ presence as a racial balm. He painted her momentous VP nod as an opportunity for Black women. “And this morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and Brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today — today, just maybe — they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents,” Biden said. 

“As a child of immigrants, [Harris] knows personally how immigrant families enrich our country, as well as the challenges of what it means to grow up Black and Indian-American in the United States of America,” said Biden. “Her story is America’s story.”  

Born in Oakland, California in 1964, Harris was the daughter of immigrants. Her mother was a breast cancer scientist; her father was an economics professor. What brought them together, Harris said today, was the civil rights movement. “And that’s how they met, as students in the streets of Oakland,” she said today, “marching and shouting for this thing called justice, in a struggle that continues today. And I was part of it.”

Harris grew up in Berkeley. She was in kindergarten when the second year of integrated busing began there in 1969. Berkeley undertook its busing program voluntarily, requiring both white and black families to travel into unfamiliar neighborhoods, per the Los Angeles Times.

Harris entered more unfamiliar territory when her family moved to Montreal in the seventies. She graduated from high school in Westmount High School, near the Canadian city. Her Westmount high school classmate Hugh Kwok remembered:  “She was a sweet, kind person. Very happy, very social.” Indeed, a survey of her Westmount colleagues in the Toronto Star revealed warm memories. “They remember the California senator, now 54, as an assured, cheery teenager who thrived both in school and on the dance floor,” wrote Washington bureau chief Daniel Dale in 2018. He wrote that Harris maintained popularity across a diverse student body, in spite of her presence in a brand-new country.

She entered new territory again by going to Howard University in Washington, D.C. She double-majored in political science and economics there. Before graduating from the historically black college, Harris was on the debate team and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She was even elected to the liberal arts student council. “Running a campaign at Howard was tough!” NBC News quotes her as saying. “I remember walking up to strangers, asking them to vote for me.”

Harris earned her juris doctorate from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Then she launched her career as a deputy district attorney (part of a D.A.’s team of prosecutors). It was just the start of what would be a star-making career. Now, she has a chance to not only advance her career but alter the course of history

*Carol Moseley-Braun was the first, in 1992.