Only three presidents in our history have not attended the swearing in ceremony of their successors. The last was Andrew Johnson in 1869 and it wasn’t his decision not to be there. The incoming president, Ulysses Grant, a sore winner, refused to have him ride in the carriage that would have taken them to the ceremony.
So soon after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the nation needed healing, and got none, largely because of personal pique, not policy differences. Johnson, then and now, was viewed as an inadequate leader, but he was the departing president and should have been present.
Today, when the nation could again use some healing, Donald Trump apparently will, or at least may, follow in those ancient and ugly footsteps. He has never seemed to understand what the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, a very conservative Republican, described: a government with checks and balances, with partisan argument inevitable, but bipartisan agreement often possible and always desirable.
For Dirksen, the ceremony was more than anointing the new president. It is symbolic of what our democracy is all about: a balance of powers and continuity.
Sen. Dirksen, who spent 34 years in the House and Senate, including 10 years, as Senate minority leader, said in his final year, 100 years after Grant, “The vitality of our tripartite system of government, a coequal representation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, is manifested by this ceremony taking place as it does on the steps of the Capitol with the House of Representatives on one side and the Senate on the other …”
For the past 40 years, since Ronald Reagan was the first sworn in where Joe Biden will be, we have affirmed what Dirksen saw.
Jimmy Carter had endured a humiliating defeat, having carried only six states, receiving only 49 electoral votes to Reagan’s 489.
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He could have pleaded the flu and skipped affirmation of his embarrassing defeat. But he embraced continuity, a peaceful transfer of power, the democratic process.
Accepting defeat in a close election may be worse. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote and received only five fewer electoral votes than George Bush.
In 2016, the Grant’s action might have been appropriate. Donald Trump had questioned Barack Obama’s birthplace, and his legitimacy as president. Not his first or last lie, but one fraudulent enough to give Obama cause to stay away.
He didn’t. As Carter and Gore before, he knew what his presence meant in keeping America great.
We need Trump as never before. 77 percent of those who voted for him believe that there was mass fraud in the election process, and that the courts colluded. Will they accept Joe Biden as a legitimate president? If they won’t, we are in a deep quagmire for years to come.
When the Electoral College ratifies the electoral validity on December 14, all Americans should hail our president-elect. Our Senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, particularly, should honor the memory and words of Everett Dirksen and the honesty of elections in Iowa, including theirs, as well as in every other state.
As we whisper hail to the chief of the moment, we shout hail to continuity and to democracy in action.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, and authored a memoir “From Nowhere to Somewhere.”