On Wednesday afternoon Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. He did so in a city under martial law, in a ceremony better suited to the investment of an aging and reluctant patrician with the imperial purple in a military camp than to a presidential oath taking on the National Mall.
The television broadcast did not do justice to the strangeness of the proceedings. The frame rarely extended beyond the speaker and his or her immediate surroundings, and when the camera did cut it was always to members of the assembled crowd rather than to the bizarre display of flags and raw military force just beyond. If the television networks' intention was to give the impression that, but for the masks (occasionally fiddled with even by former presidents in attendance), this was a normal inauguration rather than a quasi-totalitarian spectacle, they succeeded.
Within seconds of its conclusion, Biden's speech was being hailed as a masterpiece. Even the normally level-headed Chris Wallace of Fox News called it the best inaugural address he had ever heard. I somehow doubt this. Biden's remarks were an indifferently delivered hodgepodge of decontextualized Lincoln quotes, Hallmark wisdom, and jargon; they did not contain a single phrase or image that will be recalled a month from now, much less in the years and decades to come.
This is not an indictment of Biden or his speechwriters, but of the audience to which the remarks were directed. To compare what we heard on Wednesday with Kennedy's inauguration speech ("Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country") is either dishonest or idiotic.
A far more serious criticism of Biden's speech is that it was sanctimonious and insincere. Over and over again we were reminded of the importance of "unity," of treating one another "not as adversaries, but as neighbors," of "dignity and respect," of "lowering the temperature." More than once, he attempted to make a specifically religious appeal to his enemies, even invoking St. Augustine's words about the nature of political communities.
Coming from a man said to be only days away from unilaterally reversing the so-called Mexico City Policy, this is worse than a lie. It amounts to blasphemy. Roleplaying the pious Catholic statesman is a far more serious offense than mouthing trivialities about coming together while his Democratic colleagues salivate at the prospect of a new Sedition Act and the Senate prepares to make judicial proceedings for his predecessor the first important business of his administration. The latter insults the intelligence only of the listeners; the former, God.
Still, I do not blame Biden for offering Donald Trump's supporters and faithful Catholics a deceitful clemency. There is no high road for the taking in American democracy, and if Trump had won re-election, he would have used almost the exact same language to justify other absurd policies and to call for a false unity. The only difference is that in his case similarly hollow appeals would have been dismissed as such in all of our quasi-official organs of opinion. The best adjective for describing his speech was "normal," both in the sense that it was neither an abject failure nor a masterpiece of rhetoric and, more important, because it was delivered in accordance with all the norms upon which we have come to expect.
This is not what we are supposed to think about it, though, and it is not what we are going to be reading about it for the next 72 or so hours. Anyone who doubted that Biden's presidency would mean the end of facile superlatives as the default mode in American political conversation can rest easy.