The flags over the U.S. Capitol complex were flying high. President Joe Biden arrived to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress without incident. The assembled lawmakers shook hands and backslapped and actually appeared cordial. None of these were small things because nothing can ever again be taken for granted.
Sometimes history shouts its arrival. Sometimes it whispers. Biden’s Wednesday night speech was full of murmurs and exclamations.
The nation’s flags seem like they have been at half-staff more than they’ve been in their full glory these past few months. There have been so many mass shootings, Capitol police officers lying in honor, so much trauma. On this night, the country’s violence had not disappeared, but at least it was on simmer.
Biden’s arrival was according to tradition. And now we know just how fragile our customs really are. We know how important it is to hold them close. So it was calming to watch as Biden left a White House aglow in the dark and rode in a motorcade the short distance to the Capitol, where he walked through double doors and into the chamber of the House of Representatives.
The doors. The insurrectionists had tried to stampede through the Capitol’s doors on Jan. 6. Police officers had to aim their guns at the doors to keep a mob of fellow Americans out of this chamber — Americans who used the very openness of democracy to try to shut it down. So it was quite something to see those doors open wide and see a President Biden walk through — living proof that our democracy held up.
Biden was announced by House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker, the first Black person to hold that post. The president walked in calmly and genially, a contrast to the country’s recent overriding emotions of anger and vitriol. And this Congress is constantly roiling the waters.
The president walked down the center aisle, and he was not supposed to shake hands or back slap because the Congress remains under coronavirus restrictions despite all of the progress with vaccines. But politicians are politicians, and so they pressed the flesh because they simply cannot stop campaigning and buttonholing.
The room was sparsely filled — only about 200 people were in attendance. And so the applause was thin. First lady Jill Biden, whose Gabriela Hearst dress was embroidered with flowers representing all the states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, had no guests in her box. The folks she would normally have invited to sit with her — living symbols of some bullet point in the president’s speech — instead attended a virtual reception, which doesn’t quite rise to a party to rave to the grandkids about.
The president, in his gray suit and pocket square, took his place on the rostrum. And behind him stood two women — for the first time ever. Vice President Kamala Harris, in her Prabal Gurung sherbet-colored jacket and trousers, sat over his right shoulder. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in blue-gray jacquard, sat just behind his left.
“Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President,” began Biden, who paused to let that reality settle into the historical record. “No president has ever said those words from this podium. No president has ever said those words. And it’s about time.”
It was a historical moment, but it was also a reminder that as the face of leadership changes, as different voices rise in volume, that’s also a kind of upheaval. For some it’s disconcerting and disorienting. Making history causes turbulence.
As Biden began his speech, he offered the country encouragement as it climbs out of shutdowns and economic crisis, as it faces more profound, more deeply entrenched concerns from racism to immigration to gun control. Biden promises that we will steady ourselves and be better for the upheaval.
“After just 100 days, I can report to the nation, America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility, crisis into opportunity, setbacks into strength,” Biden said. “We all know life can knock us down. But in America, we never, ever, ever stay down. Americans always get up. Today, that’s what we’re doing.
“America is rising anew,” he said, “choosing hope over fear, truth over lies. And light over darkness.”
The night was full of history. There was that singular, dramatic moment that announced the future. The presence of two women in these dazzlingly high positions of power — one of them Black and Asian American — is a reminder to keep pressing forward. The sight of Harris and Pelosi together is an image of inspiration for generations of strivers whose hopes are rooted in what they can see rather than what they can imagine.
But those few hours at the Capitol also provided quiet reassurance that our past is not lost. The pillars that propped up democracy continue to stand. The doors of democracy were damaged but they remain open. And there’s glory in the mundane.