Nicholas Kristof: Joe Biden’s classy call for an ‘America united’

Biden, more than most, has experience with trauma and healing.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

The Bible promises, in Ecclesiastes, “a time to kill and a time to heal … a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

We’re not yet ready to dance, but we can begin to heal. President Joe Biden isn’t an orator, but he was effective in his appeal from a fortified Capitol for an “America united.”

“Let’s start afresh,” he urged in his Inaugural Address. “Hear one another. See one another. Show respect for one another.”

“Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” he added.

A sign that America was turning a page — make that starting a new chapter, even a new book — came on Wednesday morning as Biden appeared to delay his morning schedule so as not to divert television attention and step on former President Donald Trump’s farewell speech at Joint Base Andrews. It seemed a classy gesture to a departing president so graceless that he didn’t attend the inauguration.

When Biden announced his campaign almost two years ago, he declared, “We are in a battle for the soul of this nation.” That battle is still underway, for only 19% of Republicans said in a CNN survey that they believe Biden legitimately won the presidential election.

Biden reached out to inhabitants of alternative realities in his Inaugural Address, calling for “the most elusive of all things in a democracy, unity.”

“I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans,” he said. “And I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”

Over the last four years, many Americans have wondered whether American democracy would survive. Books of this epoch included the bestseller “How Democracies Die.” Yet while Trump and his accomplices mounted a continual assault, our American institutions and norms survived.

“Democracy is precious, democracy is fragile,” Biden declared. “And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

He added, “America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it.”

Yet the challenges are immense: the worst pandemic in a century, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and breathtaking internal divisions. Only 3% of Americans said in a recent poll that things are going “very well” in the United States these days.

Just as striking, 81% of Republicans said that the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while 78% of Democrats said the Republican Party has been taken over by racists, according to an October PRRI poll. More Republicans said that white people face a lot of discrimination (57%) than that Black people do (52%), and 85% of Republicans said they saw the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride.

Yet Biden, more than most, has experience with trauma and healing. He has said that he contemplated suicide after the death of his first wife and his daughter in a car accident, and he has publicly supported his son Hunter’s recovery from addiction — while helping so many other people over the decades overcome their own tragedies. Now he has been summoned to help America recover.

“My whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people,” he said. Skeptics have suggested that Biden is naive in supposing that he can work with Republicans and bring the country together, and he acknowledged as much.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said, but he added that enough Americans have always come through to carry our nation through crises — “and we can do that now.” I think he and his aides also believe that even if he fails as a bridge builder, the outreach can woo doubters and prove his bona fides.

During the inauguration, friends were giddily emailing me from all over the world. “You have today a great day,” said a Pole. And from a Spaniard: “I believe the U.S. has, more than any country in the world, the capacity to change for the better!”

I think and hope that they’re right.

Drew Faust, a historian and a former president of Harvard University, said she has been asked many times in the last four years whether America has ever been so divided. In the past her answer was no, we weren’t yet waging war against each other — but now after the Capitol insurrection, she’s rethinking.

“I think we’re approaching the kinds of fissures we saw in the years that led up to the Civil War,” she emailed me. “We also face circumstances that our predecessors did not. Social media provides a structural incentive to stoke division. Clicks reward conflict not accuracy or truth.”

Yet she said she’s optimistic. “I am hopeful,” she said. “Hopeful that the last two weeks may have clarified what is at stake. Hopeful that the new administration may be able to find some common ground. Hopeful that people of good will may be able to recognize the risks we have flirted with and forge a different path.”

That, as Biden suggested, places a responsibility not just on him or on leading politicians but on all of us. He was blunt about the threat of “lies told for power and for profit,” after Sean Hannity on Fox News suggested that Democrats want to put Trump supporters in “re-education camps” and Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business claimed that Democrats put on MAGA gear to infiltrate the Capitol for the insurrection. But Biden added a gracious note appealing to our better angels, and I take it to heart and hope you do too.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he urged. “We can do this — if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

We’ve moved from “a time to kill” to “a time to heal.” And maybe someday we as a nation will be able to dance again.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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