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Finding hope in the peaceful transfer of power

Inauguration Day 2021 brings a mix of sadness and hope.

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Members of the military band participate in a dress rehearsal for the 59th inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Washington.

Erin Shaff/The New York Times via Associated Press

Today is Inauguration Day, and as one who has directed a presidential inauguration and served as an adviser to five others, and as a citizen of the greatest nation on earth, I’m both sad and hopeful. 

I’m sad for our country and for every American. Not because of the election outcome — that is democracy in action, which regardless of outcome we should each cherish — but because following months of partisan brawling our federal city, the government seat of the world’s most respected land of freedom, is in a state of unprecedented armed siege. I am sad that our country has descended to this level of uncivil national discourse, unlike anything experienced since the ruinous Civil War.

The United States of America is the only nation in the entire world that inaugurates its freely elected leader on a predetermined schedule known decades in advance. Since we became a nation we have always done so peacefully, and with bipartisan harmony where winners and losers came together to celebrate our American liberty. A presidential inauguration, which began with George Washington, is a uniquely American salute by the people, of the people, and for the people.  

The majestic United States Capitol, where freely elected representatives of the people have traditionally respectfully reasoned together and where American presidents take the solemn oath of office enshrined in the Constitution, stands as a symbol to the world of time-honored American values. Yet today, heartbreakingly, that grand edifice is ringed with 12,000 feet of serrated razor wire and 25,000 armed National Guard troops to defend the people’s house.  

For a presidential inauguration to be curtailed by the pandemic is understandable and necessary; to be threatened and forever tarnished by anarchic civil disobedience is deplorable and a shameful embarrassment to every American. This is an American national tragedy of our own insolent doing, not brought about by foreign powers.

I’m sad that the FBI this week found it necessary to warn that state capitols are also in danger of violence from armed extremist groups. Never before have all 50 state capitols found it essential to be protected by soldiers and police.

I am sad that President Donald Trump will not participate in honoring our cherished ceremonial transfer of presidential power. He will be the first president since Andrew Johnson in 1869, 152 years ago, and only the fourth in U.S. history, to skip the ceremony where his successor takes the constitutional oath of office.

As I’ve reflected on the several inaugurals I’ve helped manage, political opponents, sometimes bitter enemies, have come together with civility and graciousness. Traditionally, the incoming and outgoing presidents ride from the White House to the U.S. Capitol together for the inauguration ceremony — even when one defeated the other, for the country is bigger than individuals. Sadly, not today.

But today I am also hopeful, and grateful. There is something sacred about this simple yet treasured act of freedom for which hundreds of thousands of men and women have given their lives to defend and preserve. Inaugurations engender both reverence and celebration, as they symbolize the beauty, consistency and majesty of freedom-in-action to the schoolchildren of this nation, to those who have served this nation in wars in distant lands, to hundreds of millions of people worldwide who yearn for the freedoms we too casually take for granted, and to every American.

Today there will be a peaceful transfer of power. The White House will calmly and orderly change hands. The business of America’s government will move evenly forward, within the framework of laws that govern its conduct. Soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen standing vigilant duty in distant lands and on the world’s oceans will have a new commander in chief. America’s diplomats stationed in countries worldwide will continue to represent the red, white and blue. America will move on without a hitch.

Today is a day for all Americans to pause and thankfully ponder freedom’s gift from the author of liberty. Our imperfect system always has differences of opinion, ideals and governing policies, but today let us all be Americans coming together in unity to celebrate America.  

Let us set aside partisan differences and today remember and honor this sweet land of liberty, from sea to shining sea.

Stephen M. Studdert, a Utah resident, has served several U.S. presidents in Washington.