COVID-19 had already ensured Wednesday’s presidential inauguration would be different, but President Donald Trump refusing to attend, and the possibility of protests, threaten a ceremony that mirrors our democracy’s strength.
Unfortunately, our democracy is fragile. A large, heterogeneous population’s ability to govern itself while guaranteeing liberty and justice for all is still an experiment. It could fail. The strength of our constitutional order is a veneer only as thick as our reverence for it.
That is why the president, whether it’s Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, must attend Wednesday’s inauguration.
If you ever have an opportunity to attend a presidential inauguration ceremony, do it. On stage is a person, a citizen, then in a mere moment, the people and the states transfer immense authority making that person president of the United States. And, making the former president, willingly, history.
Thirty-two years ago my wife and I sat in folding chairs, our feet frozen on sodden lawn, and watched President Ronald Reagan look on as George H.W. Bush became president, and as Reagan became a former president. Even though the office was only being handed from one Republican to another, that second when a person becomes president is awesome, in the fullest definition of the word.
I thought back to 1977, where on a grainy, snowy television screen in rural Brazil, I watched Gerald Ford graciously preside over the peaceful transfer of his power to Gov. Jimmy Carter. Tears trickled down my Brazilian host mother’s cheeks.
“He is just wearing a suit, like a normal man,” she said of Carter.
“He lost” she said of Ford, “and he is giving his power to this man.”
She cried because she felt she was watching something beautiful, and because she longed for that beauty in her country. Brazil’s dictator did not dress like a common man but hid behind medals and epaulets. He gripped power, while President Ford, with dignity, rode to the Capitol with the man who had defeated him and stood behind Carter as he assumed leadership.
Months before, Ford had pardoned former President Richard Nixon, knowing that was best for the country and that it would likely cost him the 1976 election. Ford stood next to the incoming president reaping the consequences of putting our republic’s interest over his own, watched his opponent transform into the president, and listened as that new president outlined his vision.
I know the world was watching, because I was in a rural Brazilian town with spotty television reception, and everyone was watching.
The dignified transfer of one’s presidential power to one’s successor is much more than an American tradition; it demonstrates people can govern themselves.
A president attending the swearing-in of the next president, gracefully watching power being handed over and wishing Godspeed to one’s successor, binds the country in a precarious moment.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy understood how important it is for a republic’s citizens to watch power peacefully transferred and invested in a new person. Her husband, the president, was dead, and so she needed to stand-in for him. She stood shoulder to shoulder with her late husband’s successor and let the nation and world see she embraced the transfer of power to him.
Deluged with grief and shock, it is unlikely she wanted to be there. It is most likely she didn’t even like the man who was succeeding her husband, but she understood her feelings were irrelevant.
This Wednesday all citizens, whether we feel like it or not, whether we like the incoming president or the outgoing president, should peacefully honor the transfer of power. By doing that we will be demonstrating to ourselves and the world that we can and will set aside our own passions for the strength of our democracy.
We should expect as much from our president. Just as it was necessary following President Kennedy’s assassination and Watergate, the president’s participation in Wednesday’s transfer of power is essential in the aftermath of last week’s storming of the Capitol.
If President Trump cannot set aside his feelings and attend, he should resign and let Vice President Mike Pence be sworn in as president and stand behind President-elect Joe Biden as the power of the presidency is passed.
This Wednesday, let all of us demonstrate a democratic republic is not mob rule, that we can govern ourselves with dignity, and again let us show the world how it is done.