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A Historian On Where Biden's Inauguration Fits In History


If every moment feels like history in the making, how do you keep track of what's making history? Well, today, we can mark the beginning of a new era, a new presidency, a new moment in history, with the inauguration of Joe Biden. To reflect on that, our next guest is Heather Cox Richardson. She's a professor of history at Boston College and author of the wildly popular "Letters From An American" newsletter.

Heather Cox Richardson, welcome.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: You know, so many traditions went out the window with this inauguration. Most glaringly, we note the outgoing president did not show up for today's inauguration. I'm curious what struck your historian's eye with inauguration traditions - what did not happen, what did and why it matters.

COX RICHARDSON: Well, of course, the most important one is the fact we did not have a peaceful transition of power. And we have had one in every American election since 1800, which was the first one that people really thought was going to be the one that tore the country apart. And we did not - we've broken that tradition, and that is something we can never look away from.

But the things that jumped out at me today, other than that, which really quite surprised me was the degree to which it felt to me that Biden was reaching back to JFK and not simply saying that we need to grab hold of this moment and be unified and here's some policies going forward, which is generally what a president will do in, at this point, his inaugural address, but in fact, that he was calling on Americans to reach down and give back to the country and to do this together for each other - to get us away from COVID, to get us away from our divisions, to get us moving forward again into the 21st century.

And that was the kind of call that I was trying to think this afternoon, reaching back, I don't believe we've heard that call really since JFK. And it suggests we are indeed in a new moment and a moment where it's no longer uncool to care about this country, and it's no longer uncool to say, yeah, what can I do for my country? And that, to me, marks the change that I see here between the last administration, which seemed a terribly selfish one, and this new one, which is at least starting on a high note of everybody giving what they can.

KELLY: As you listened to the inaugural address, was your reaction, your sense, that Biden hit the right tone for where we are in this incredibly painful, incredibly divided moment? He acknowledged - he was pretty honest - like, we're in a bad place. There are huge rifts in this country.

COX RICHARDSON: Yes, and I do - I thought the speech was really terrific. I thought he did a very good job with it. But I will confess that I watched one eye on Biden and one eye on QAnon chat boards because, of course, noon was the moment when the storm was supposed to come, and Trump was supposed to come back, and all the Democrats were supposed to be arrested.

And I was really interested to see how that part of the country would be watching what was happening in front of everybody's eyes because that, I think, says a lot, of course, about that population and about where we are right now. But it also says a lot about the base of the Republican Party. And I was interested to see if they would simply move the goalposts and say, oh, we misread the signs. You know, we're going to move forward and expect the storm in however many weeks or whatever or whether they would sit - would say, we have been lied to.

So for all the - there was this moving president speaking in front of me on the television. I was on my phone, watching the QAnon chatrooms. So maybe I was not quite as moved as I would have been had I not been (inaudible).

KELLY: Are there historical precedents that leap to mind for you for that - for a president - a new president coming in, preaching healing, preaching unity, and this huge sector of the American population which is having a very different conversation?

COX RICHARDSON: Yes. I'm sorry - I didn't catch the beginning of that question.

KELLY: Oh, we may have had a little bleep on the line. I was just - you were pointing to how you had been prompted to think of JFK today. And I wondered, is there a different precedent that might leap to mind where you - where a new president comes in, is preaching healing, but a huge swath of Americans is on a totally different - in a totally different chatroom, having a totally different conversation?

COX RICHARDSON: Well, absolutely. There are two that spring to mind. Funny you should ask a historian this. The two are Cleveland's second inauguration - Grover Cleveland in 1892 - and then Teddy Roosevelt in - after the assassination of McKinley, when he took office in the early 20th century. And in both cases, the country was bitterly divided. And in both cases, each of those presidents - Cleveland, a Democrat, and Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican - offered the same program for trying to heal divisions and for trying to move the country forward. And one of them, of course, we remember as being a failure, and one we remember as being a huge success.

And the major difference between the two, aside from the parties - because they were operating against different kinds of structures - is the fact that Cleveland did not use what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit. When Teddy Roosevelt got stymied, he simply went around the media. He went around politicians and the established people, even within his own party, and went to the American people and said, here's what I'm trying to do; help me out. Cleveland did not do that.

So I'm looking forward. And I'm thinking when we talk about moving the country forward, one of the things that's going to be imperative, I think, for Biden and his people to do is make sure they use the bully pulpit in a very effective way.

KELLY: This is maybe an unfair question 'cause we have just a minute left. But in a few sentences, is it too soon to ask how history will remember Donald Trump?

COX RICHARDSON: I think it will remember him negatively, except, as I always say, until we know how the future comes out, we cannot know how we will judge the present. But right now, it's not looking very good.

KELLY: And just in another sentence or two, have you figured out how you're going to open your newsletter tomorrow?

COX RICHARDSON: I have. It's actually tonight. I have, and I will let it be a surprise.

KELLY: Oh, a little tease there. All right.

COX RICHARDSON: And I think it will be a surprise.

KELLY: OK. Something unpredictable. We will look forward to it.

Heather Cox Richardson, thank you.

COX RICHARDSON: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: She's a professor of history at Boston College and author of the newsletter "Letters From An American."

(SOUNDBITE OF L'IMPERATRICE'S "LA-HAUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.