“The Torch Will Be Passed. It’s Up to Biden to Make it Glow”

A former presidential speechwriter explains what Biden needs to do in his inaugural address and what the new president can learn from Washington, Lincoln, and F.D.R.

In 1791, George Washington rode on horseback up to Jenkin’s Hill. He wanted Pierre L’Enfant to show him the great capital city he’d designed. No other country before, the architect said, had the opportunity to pick the very spot of its governance.

“The plan should be drawn in such a scale as to leave room for the aggrandizement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.”

Looking down that June day from the future Capitol Hill, Washington and L’Enfant needed a shared vision. They had to see past the swampland before them and imagine the future city, including the impressive carriageway connecting the new Capitol with the future White House. They needed to see the grand democratic republic whose elected leaders would meet here and govern its affairs.

One hundred and thirty years later, Joseph R Biden Jr. will also need to carry a vision with him. He will need to see past today’s turmoil of pandemic and bad governance to a brighter American future. Like Washington he will have to look past what he sees before him, a country bitterly divided, to a nation united by common purpose.

This is the challenge the president-elect has before him on Wednesday noon. Only he, the country’s new leader, has the standing to tell this land of three hundred thirty million that a better future awaits us.

But while he will be alone on that West Front platform, Biden will not be alone in history.

Think of Abraham Lincoln, taking the oath at the same time the entire country to his South was moving to secede from the Union. Or of Franklin Roosevelt, who faced the Great Depression and a world torn between the frightening poles of Fascism and Communism.

Like both of these great leaders, Biden must know there is no safe harbor in the past. To save the American Union, Lincoln needed to find a cause. He found it in the ending of slavery. To save capitalism, FDR needed to create a new, progressive role of government.

Joe Biden needs to do the same. To do otherwise would lead to catastrophe.

Case in point: Warren G. Harding. Harding ran in 1920 on a promise to bring the country back to “normalcy” after the shock of World War I. That word was the product of Judson Welliver, his “literary clerk” who became the country’s first presidential speechwriter. Harding, of course, was a disaster, as was the entire decade he introduced. Instead of dealing with the country’s growing economic problems, he let them slide. And slide they did into the worst economic downfall in our country’s history.

Joe Biden has a great chance tomorrow to tell the country that he will be aiming for Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, not for Harding. He needs to display the grand vision of our first president, the moral conviction of Lincoln, the imagination of FDR.

Tomorrow, the torch will be passed. It’s up to Biden to make it glow. He needs to show the country what Washington imagined, what Lincoln saved, what Roosevelt brought to global greatness.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster is publishing his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.