'Celebrating America' - A PBS NewsHour inauguration special
PBS NewsHour is taking a closer look at Inauguration Day with our special, "Celebrating America." Anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff breaks down the historic day with White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, Washington Post senior critic Robin Givhan, filmmaker Ken Burns and Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian and law professor at Harvard University.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening, and welcome to this "PBS NewsHour" live inauguration night
special. I'm Judy Woodruff.
Today, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both made history. He, at 78,
is the oldest person to become president, and she as the first woman and person of Jamaican
and South-Asian descent to be vice president.
It was a day many feared could see violence, but it was marked, thankfully, by peace, by
calls for unity and perseverance.
Even so, this new administration faces a myriad of challenges, a pandemic that has claimed
over 400,000 American lives, an economic crisis crippling millions of households, a need to
reconcile after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and the second impeachment
of the outgoing president.
Instead of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans on the National Mall today, there
were more than 25,000 National Guard on high alert.
Tonight, rather than the traditional inaugural balls, there will be a virtual program that
organizers are calling "Celebrating America."
But before we get to that, we want to take a listen again to some of the words of President
Joe Biden today in his inaugural address, and then reflect for a moment on this historic
JOE BIDEN, President of the United States: My fellow Americans, this is America's day.
This is democracy's day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve. Through
a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge.
Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The
people, the will of the people has been heard. And the will of people has been heeded.
We've learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my
friends, democracy has prevailed.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOE BIDEN: So now on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought
to shake the Capitol's very foundation, we come together as one nation under God, indivisible,
to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.
I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know
the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new.
Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal, that we are all created
equal, and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn
The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.
We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we've acted together.
And so today, at this time and this place, let's start afresh, all of us. Let's begin
to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.
Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement
doesn't have to be a cause for total war, and we must reject the culture in which facts
themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOE BIDEN: To all those who supported our campaign, I'm humbled by the faith you placed
To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward.
Take a measure of me and my heart, and if you still disagree, so be it. That's democracy.
That's America. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps
this nation's greatest strength.
Yet hear me clearly: This agreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you:
I will be a president for all Americans, all Americans.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOE BIDEN: And I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as
for those who did.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOE BIDEN: I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation.
I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed,
staring -- at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, can I keep my health care, can
I pay my mortgage, thinking about their families, about what comes next.
I promise you, I get it.
But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those
who don't look like -- look like you or worship the way you do, or don't get their news from
the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural
vs. urban -- rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.
We can do this, if we open our souls, instead of hardening our hearts.
My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we're going to need each other. We need
all our strength to preserve -- to persevere through this dark winter. We're entering what
may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and
finally face this pandemic as one nation, one nation.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOE BIDEN: Folks, this is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on
truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis,
America's role in the world.
Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face
them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we've
Now we're going to be tested. Are we going to step up, all of us? It's time for boldness,
for there's so much to do. And this is certain. I promise you, we will be judged, you and
I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.
My fellow Americans, I close today where I began, with a sacred oath. Before God and
all of you, I give you my word, I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution.
I will defend our democracy. I will defend America. And I will give all, all of you,
keep everything I do in your service.
So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to those tasks of our time, sustained by faith, driven
by conviction, and devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts.
May God bless America, and may God protect our troops. Thank you, America.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Biden, excerpts from his inaugural address earlier today.
It is a new day at the White House. And our Yamiche Alcindor has been there all this day
from early this morning.
Yamiche, the pile of challenges doesn't get any higher than what Joe Biden is looking
at. And he was talking about that today.
How is he starting on day one to address them?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, this is the combination of 48 years of government service for Joe
Biden, now president, the 46th president of the United States.
And he said very clearly that he wants to be optimistic, that he does believe America
can get through these challenges together. But he is also being a realist, saying that
he understands that this is a dark winter, understands that he is inheriting a country
that is divided, both around racial lines, also traumatized by the attack on the Capitol,
where Americans took up arms against other Americans, trying to topple American democracy.
He is focused, he says, specifically on two viruses, both the coronavirus and racism,
saying that those two things at play are top of mind for him. He has signed now 17 executive
actions, many of them going to the core of the pandemic, talking about having a national
mask mandate, and for federal properties, as well as rolling back a number of Trump
policies, including a ban on Muslims coming to this country from Muslim-majority countries,
also wanting to rejoin the Paris climate accord, wanting to rejoin the World Health Organization.
But this really is about Joe Biden saying, we are turning the page on lies and on disinformation
and going now into truth and civility.
Here is what Joe Biden also said to his own White House aides as he was swearing them
JOE BIDEN: If you are ever working with me, and I hear you treat another colleague with
disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot, on the spot,
no ifs, ands or buts.
Everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That's been missing
in a big way the last four years.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: That is Joe Biden saying that he is changing the tone.
And, of course, he says he's also changing the tone by having a diverse Cabinet, saying
- - he's saying the most diverse in history. And, of course, he's doing all this alongside
now Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman, first South Asian, and first
member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, a Black sorority, to hold that position, someone
that people say really just embodies the change and the civility that Joe Biden is going for
JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Yamiche, a sense of reaching across the aisle.
I mean, he spoke about, let's end this uncivil war. You get the idea that he really does
want to sit down with Republicans. What do you hear there about that?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: That's right.
Joe Biden, someone who has been a creature of the Senate, who spent a lot of years in
the Senate making deals, as well as vice president, being set down to make deals, he says that
he is going to work across the aisle with Republicans.
He has a $1.9 trillion COVID package that he needs to get through Congress. So, it's
going to take him talking to Republicans, he thinks. And this is also a White House
that says that they are going to be bipartisan also in the way that they effectively govern,
inviting Republicans to have their ideas heard.
This is also a president that, in some ways, is really thinking about bipartisanship, he
says, all along the line.
I should say one thing. I was walking around the White House, taking it all in. And I ran
into White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. And on his face was a mask that was red and
blue that said "Unity." So, they are taking that message not only to the inauguration,
but also in what they're wearing at this White House tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Very interesting.
And I know, Yamiche, you said they have instituted new rules. Everybody's being tested, wearing
masks, a new kind of day.
Yamiche Alcindor, thank you so much for all this reporting on this long day.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And now let's step back to get a sense of this Inauguration Day and its
place in American history.
Joining us, a renowned documentary filmmaker familiar to everyone who watches PBS, Ken
Burns, and Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed.
It's so good to see both of you. Thank you for being here.
Ken Burns, I do want to start with you. You have spent a lot of time looking at American
history. And I know you listened closely and you watched closely what happened today. What
parallels are you drawing, or does this day stand alone?
KEN BURNS, Documentary Filmmaker: Well, it stands alone because it has so many elements
of so many other crises.
Up to this moment, the three great crises in the United States, the Civil War, the Depression,
and World War II, are sort of all combined in one, and then some, for Joe Biden.
I made, Judy, a film on the history of the Congress in the early '80s. And Cokie Roberts
took me around in the days when you could just walk in a door. I, in deference, turned
to a Capitol Policeman and said -- this big Black man, and I said: "Oh, I'm sorry. Can
I go in here?"
And he said: "It's your house."
And Cokie would take me around and show me the secret hiding places of various members
of Congress, where they consciously went to get away, not because they had to hide from
a mob, and later on sat down for an interview in which she said that, when Richard Nixon
resigned, not a single troop went on alert, not a single troop changed barracks.
And I thought, going into today, that the 25,000 National Guardsmen ringing the Capitol
would in some ways affect the day. And it didn't. Something was direct and pure and
The disgraced outgoing president never saw anything bigger than himself. And here we
have a man, Joe Biden, who has assumed the presidency, who sees other people as equals.
He understands there's no communication except among equals. And he recognizes things that
are bigger than himself, his God and his savior, but also this country and its institutions
and its values.
So, something remarkable happened today, that, as this man faces the greatest existential
threat in the history of the United States, it came with a kind of calm. He knew what
was ahead of him.
We have three viruses, I would suggest, in all due respects to Yamiche, not just the
virus of COVID that is a year-old, not just the 402-year-old virus of white supremacy
and racial injustice, but with the age-old human virus of lying and paranoia and misinformation
and deceit and conspiracies.
And the only way that that gets mitigated is through love and compassion. And Joe Biden
embodied those today. In fact, the whole ceremony had that from the very, very beginning to
the very, very end, including that young, remarkable woman, Amanda Gorman, who read
that amazing poem.
We were, in essence, cleansed today. And one had a sense that there are difficult tasks
ahead of us, perhaps insurmountable, but that we have someone who has the will and the ability
to move forward towards them.
And I think he enlisted lots of Americans on both sides of the aisle in a kind of common
JUDY WOODRUFF: It's so important to hear that take on today, and to be reminded of our late
dear friend Cokie Roberts taking you around the Capitol.
Annette Gordon-Reed, to pick up on what Ken was just saying, compare the challenges that
Joe Biden is facing, is stepping into with what previous -- I mean, previous presidents
have come into office in the middle of wars, on the cusp of a Civil War. I mean, what -- how
do you compare what he faces?
ANNETTE GORDON REED, Harvard University: Well, as Ken said, there are a number of things
all crashing together here, the coronavirus that has decimated so much of the -- so many
people in the country and that is -- remains as a threat, and the epidemic of, Ken said
lying, the prevalence of misinformation, disinformation that create suspicion and created the situation
where people stormed, ransacked the Capitol Building.
It's very hard to think of a time like this. When we had the Civil War, the South did not
like the fact that Lincoln was elected president, but they didn't say he wasn't the president.
They just wanted to go on their way.
But this is something different. We have never seen this. And we have taken our republic,
our democracy for granted, thinking that of course this is all going to work out. And
a lot of those sort of warning signs that were given, we sort of ignored. And it's still
surreal to think that, a couple of weeks ago, there were people storming the Capitol and
looking for, apparently looking for members of Congress to do harm to.
And that's something that we think of happening in other kinds of countries. America is very
much into this notion of exceptionalism. And it's good to be confident, but it can also
lend a false sense of security, when people take what we have for granted.
And Biden, President Biden, now has to work against some very, very difficult, difficult
circumstances here. It's -- he hit the right note, I think, talking about unity, talking
about the road ahead. He was very, very matter of fact about what he has to do, and thinking
of -- he used the phrase the winter of peril and significant possibilities to sort of say,
yes, this is a tough time, but we can do something.
Government can do something. We can work together to achieve the goals that we have to achieve
if we want to go forward in this country.
But the reality is, there are 70 million people who didn't agree with his program. There are
some significant number of people, apparently, who did not even believe or don't believe
that he is a legitimate president.
And that's something that we haven't faced before. I think he's going to have to prevail
over that, to the extent that he can, by being successful. He has to do things, and he has
to move the country forward, have some successes, and then maybe people will not invent problems
that are not there, if there are actual problems being solved.
So, I was very heartened by his message. I think he did just what he was supposed to
do. He showed himself. This was not -- you didn't think that this was artifice. This
was actually Joe Biden speaking, and with humility, but with a sense of purpose.
But I'm still wondering how this is going to play. Love is important. Love must be there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: But I wonder about the other side. Will that be met with an equal
commitment to moving forward? And we just don't know at this point. We really don't.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see about that, for sure.
Ken Burns, as someone who's in the business of digging out the truth of our history and
the story -- the American story, I mean, is there advice for Joe Biden? How do you go
about countering a huge lie?
KEN BURNS: That's the whole thing right now. We're not on the same page. Joe Biden has
said this. So many people have said this.
One wouldn't want everyone to believe the same things, but we want to be on the same
page. Many of us grew up with just three different news stations. You read a couple of different
newspapers, if you lived proximate to their publication, or you subscribed to local newspapers
that had the AP or the UPI.
We basically shared common information. You could say that, when the Fairness Doctrine
went out in 1987, and then with the fall of the Soviet Union, you had a kind of twin thing,
where, absent an enemy, many people turned to the opposite party, particularly Republicans
against Democrats, and made them the enemy.
And, somehow, we have got to get back to that.
And Annette is absolutely right. There is great, obviously, momentum and inspiration
that comes from a day like today, but he's going to have to deliver vaccines. He's got
great opportunities ahead of him to invest in education, to invest in unum, to invest
in eradicating rural, as well as urban poverty, investing in infrastructure, in climate and
sustainability, and, of course, health care, beyond else -- but that stuff has to be done.
And we're not sure how willing people are, making those cold political calculus about
what the base wants and what they don't want, and will I get reelected, and will people
give me money to run for my election?
So, I'm trying to balance the cascading threats that are greater than any other moment in
American history in some ways, understanding that Lincoln understood from the very beginning
that the threat wouldn't come. No transatlantic army could step the earth and crush us at
a blow, he said. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
As a nation of free men, we will live through all time or die by suicide.
And we are at that moment in which we have seen -- the curtain has been drawn, and we
have seen what that end looks like with that mob.
And yet 160 million people voted, the most secure election in history. And poll workers
and voters went, withstanding this virus.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.
KEN BURNS: The courts dismissed every challenge.
We have a woman of color and a woman as a vice president. And we have the oldest president,
who has himself been tempered by suffering, which has given him that humility that Franklin
Roosevelt also had when he was stricken by polio, and was able to translate, this patrician
born to the manner able to translate that into a kind of empathy that ordinary people
JUDY WOODRUFF: And just in a few seconds, Annette Gordon-Reed, the hope that people
will listen and will respect each other, as President Biden said today?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes.
And I -- as Ken said, I was enormously encouraged by the voter turnout. Young people, after
the election of 2016, people of my daughter's generation, some of her friends, ran for office.
She became involved in campaigns. That's the bright side of all of this.
I think the past four years have been difficult, but it galvanized people. And we see people
standing in line to vote. I mean, it's not a great thing that they had to work so hard
to do that. And that's one thing that the president should be working on, the president
and Congress, and also local officials as well, to make voting easier for people, for
I think that there's a cause for optimism here. President Biden can't do all this on
his own, and I don't expect him to do it on his own. But I do think that the combination
of people working together is what will make this work. And there are signs that that could
JUDY WOODRUFF: We are so grateful to the two of you, as we began to reflect on, to think
about, and to watch closely as this new president gets under way.
Annette Gordon-Reed, Ken Burns, we are so appreciative. Thank you.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Thanks for being here. Glad to be here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: As we know, new first families in the White House always bring change to
Washington in substance, in style and tone.
The differences between the Trumps and the Bidens are already notable.
Robin Givhan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and the senior critic at large for The Washington
Robin Givhan, thank you so much for being with us tonight.
Tell us what you see already in terms of a different tone from this new first family.
ROBIN GIVHAN, The Washington Post: Well, just with the inauguration, I was really struck
by, first of all, the sense of calm that was really exuded both from the inaugural address,
but also just the circumstances, the symbolism.
And I was very struck by the fact that President Biden was able to speak in a very forthright
manner, but in a way that wasn't alarmist. And I also found so many of the symbols of
sort of patriotism and America that had been in many ways sort of weaponized over the last
four years, used as kind of a wedge between people, to see them sort of redefined as something
that is unifying and more optimistic.
Hearing Jennifer Lopez singing "This land is my land, this land is your land" had really
deep resonance. Hearing Lady Gaga kind of linger on lines from the national anthem,
I think, really underscored that, in many ways, the country has come out of a different
kind of battle.
And so, in that way, it really felt like a lot of the things that symbolize America have
been reborn in a way.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It's so interesting you should say that, because we remember hearing President
Trump speak repeatedly about the predominance of America, the centrality of America. There
were flags everywhere.
And there were flags everywhere today. But there was a different feel about it all. The
message that was coming from this inaugural was just -- was just a different message,
in the way people presented themselves.
I mean, you have written about the clothes that were chosen by the new vice president.
She chose American designer. It's something - - this message can come through in so many
ROBIN GIVHAN: Yes.
I mean, when we were thinking about the flag, particularly -- the previous administration,
the flag seemed to be used in a way that was very boastful and that was aggressive.
And, today, I really felt as though the flag had been repositioned, so that it was much
more reflective of the people that it represented. And that was certainly seen in the incredible
art installation on the Mall, where some 200,000 flags essentially stood in for the populace
that couldn't be there.
And so the flag wasn't diminished, but I think it became a much more intimate kind of symbol
and a much more inclusive one. And, certainly, the vice president made a significant choice
when she decided that she would wear the work of a young African-American designer, Christopher
John Rogers, for this occasion.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I was thinking, as you were describing the flag, the difference. That
sea of waving flags on the National Mall, we looked at that earlier tonight. It's an
image you just -- you can't get out of your mind.
As you think about the days and the weeks to come, how does a first family go about
continuing to set the tone and send the message that it wants to send?
ROBIN GIVHAN: Well, I think, in large measure, it comes from simply being seen.
And one of the things that was really missing from the previous administration were those
moments that were as sort of unposed or as informal as a first family can be. We never
really saw pictures of the previous president with the son who lived with them. Or you never
really saw him at ease, except on the golf course.
And so I think, with the Bidens, simply seeing him with the dogs, seeing Mrs. -- the first
lady going off to teach will tell us a lot about this family and about the message that
JUDY WOODRUFF: Robin Givhan, critic at large - - senior critic at large for The Washington
Post, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Thank you.
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