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May 26th, 2017

Insight

President Trump takes office

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Jan. 23, 2017

President Trump takes office

For nearly two and a half centuries this continent has been buffeted by the breezes, and sometimes battered by the fierce atmospheric currents, of change. This weekend the winds veered in gusts, and the country reeled with change.

The United States has always been an awkward blend of tradition and transformation, and never -- not once in the 228 years that it has been ruled under the Constitution -- has that mixture been more evident, more evocative, more stunning, than in the fevered days of transformation that began Friday with the inauguration of an insurgent who, with a mere 35 words, became the ultimate insider.

Indeed, in an extraordinary instant, the old insiders became outsiders and, more astonishing still, the old outsiders became insiders.

Donald John Trump is the 45th president, and different from all who preceded him, just as his inaugural address, one of the sturdy set-pieces of American civic life, was different from all that preceded his clarion call to "think big and dream even bigger."

Some inaugural addresses reside in favored positions in rhetorical history, and some recede to anonymity assured by their presence, along with 57 others, in the anthology of such remarks. And though Trump may have introduced no new jewels into the oratorical crown of this ancient ritual, the scene, and the symbolism, of this inauguration will retain its power for decades, perhaps for generations.

For this was not merely a departure -- most inaugurals involving changes in party occupation of the White House are -- but it amounted to a remarkable rhetorical repudiation of the president sitting only feet from him and of the established power centers of the capital that he both dominates and derides.

"A small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost," Trump, surrounded by that very small group, said in a poignant example of how his flourishes have the capacity to ruffle.

More broadly, this was a moment when a president representing change succeeded a chief executive who himself represented change. And while it may have seemed impossible, eight years ago, to imagine a change from form and profile greater than the inauguration of a black president, this was yet another departure from form -- perhaps a measure of how responsive the American system is to public demands for change, perhaps a measure of how frustrated the public has grown with customary politics, and with the custom of politics.

And while commentators repeatedly remarked on the continuity implicit in the ceremonies and circumstances of this momentous weekend, the presidents who joined Trump on the West Front of the Capitol were themselves more than symbols of continuity. For the recondite but irresistible element in the ceremony was that each of the men assembled on the podium themselves once represented deep -- sometimes comforting, sometimes jarring -- change: Jimmy Carter (exuding a new spirit after Watergate and Vietnam); Bill Clinton (representing a new generation of leadership after nine presidents shaped by World War II); George W. Bush (brandishing a newly shaped conservatism); and Barack Obama (symbolizing a new inclusiveness).

Friday's ceremony bore both the imprimatur of history and the impulses of the nation's newest occupant of its most cherished office.

Trump approached the podium with his trademark swagger -- Americans have grown familiar with his bulky profile -- and he paused for a kiss for Michelle Obama and the sort of half-hug for Obama that men share when they feel they must. When he finished, he shook his fist -- perhaps in triumph, perhaps in determination. It was a gesture that none of his predecessors dared make.

There were, to be sure, potent symbols of continuity, but they served to underline the profundity of change involved in the solemn proceedings. Trump no more finished the "so help me God" coda of the Oath of Office than the Marine Band began, without pause, the percussion-and-brass fanfare played only for the president of the United States. In that millisecond, power passed from the hand of a community activist and constitutional law professor to a businessman with global real-estate holdings.

Moments later Trump launched into perhaps the most populist inaugural address of all time. Presidents at moments like these often speak of the rule of the people, but Trump spoke of "transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people."

He added: "The forgotten men and women of this country will be forgotten no longer," a vow that had echoes of the campaign speeches of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and was rooted in an 1883 essay by the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, who said of the forgotten man that "all the burdens fall on him."

Trump now inherits a chair that has been the seat of both passive (Calvin Coolidge) and activist government (FDR and Lyndon Johnson). He hit themes offered by outsiders (Andrew Jackson) and insiders (Herbert Hoover). But the inauguration bore the unmistakable stamp of Trump, and of his vow to "fight for you with every breath in my body."

Trump's opponents, and minority groups troubled by his campaign and fearful for their futures, were thirsty for words of reconciliation and unity.

The president's pugilistic tone almost certainly disappointed them, though he made a bow in their direction, declaring, in perhaps his most lyrical passage, "When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice."

But in a celebration of democracy and of the peaceful transfer of power, not everyone was celebrating.

Few presidents had adamantine opponents as virulent as did Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, but Trump enters office with strong opposition. Indeed, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 38 percent of Americans support the new president, versus 48 percent who oppose him.

For all, this weekend is a moment of reflection. "We have to remember who we are, what we have accomplished and what we stand for," David McCullough, the biographer of John Adams and Harry Truman, said in an interview. "It's important that we stand by these values. We can't sit on the sidelines and say, 'Oh, well.' There are checks and balances in our system, but we are part of the checks and the balances, all of us."

Thus begins a new era in the most American tradition of all: change. It is the great national continuity.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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