Transfers of power are special, but politics is not ultimate
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Forty years ago I attended my first Inauguration Day. For the occasion I bought a suit.
I was 20 years old and working for a Republican congressman from Arizona, Eldon Rudd, back in the day when lawmakers hired people like me for speedy typing skills and some shorthand. I attended college at night. I remember now the unmatched excitement I had in that suit, a wool tweed blazer and pencil skirt, and setting off across the street with colleagues from the Longworth House Office Building to the Capitol, careless of the cold wind.
We roamed the East Front, watched the military color guard practice its drills and a regiment dressed in Colonial-era regalia heaving its muskets. Then we found our way to the West Front, the National Mall already filling with people behind us. We had special passes giving us seats in a section beneath the inaugural podium. We wore no permanent ID badges at that time, and I remember barricades but no metal detectors. I remember being close enough to see Ronald Reagan’s face move as he took the oath of office, to hear him compare America to a shining city on a hill, and to feel then that it was.
Tension has to remain part of holding open the “people’s house” while also protecting it.
The 2021 inauguration, taking place inside a military cordon with a fraction of the onlookers, could not have been more different—made necessary by a pandemic and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
But those alterations don’t change what’s important: that Inauguration Day represents the triumph of the institutions of our democracy over any one leader or party. It reminds us the wheels of democracy turn slowly but surely. The mob of a few weeks before wanted a swift revocation of electoral results, but hours later those wheels were turning again.
Reagan in his 1981 address called inauguration “a commonplace occurrence … and nothing less than a miracle.” That is why the world watches too. Ever since John Adams handed power to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and departed Washington, the globe momentarily pauses to see whether a peaceful handover to a rival will happen in so powerful a place.
Dangers are never far away. I was at my desk in the Longworth building two months after Reagan’s inauguration when Capitol Police officers came to say, “The president has been shot.” The area went into lockdown, and for hours it was unclear what was happening. We know now that the president’s deputies prepared but never signed letters to invoke the 25th Amendment as surgeons operated to remove a bullet lodged near Reagan’s heart.
The assassination attempt, attacks from Libyan terrorists, and of course 9/11 forever changed working life on Capitol Hill. They made normal metal detectors and searches, even lockdowns. Tension has to remain part of holding open the “people’s house” while also protecting it. It’s why we have to take seriously the threat of January’s assault, work to regain trust in our institutions, and throw the doors open to examine yet another new government.
We can do that without obsessing over politics or investing in it at the expense of civic and church life. In my heady days treading the halls of Congress, who was shaping my life? Not the president of the United States, much as I admired Reagan. Friends and colleagues who invited me to lectures and Bible studies were sowing life-changing seeds.
I was a new believer, for the first time living away from home and family, restless, ambitious, and open to temptations. When I arrived in Washington, I’d never been to a Bible study, I lacked Christian disciplines, and I didn’t know how to begin finding a church.
In God’s providence, my boss was a late-in-life Catholic convert who hired among his staff believing Catholics, engaging Southern Baptists, and a hyper--extroverted charismatic evangelical. They invited me to their lunchtime Bible studies and to lectures from luminaries like Francis Schaeffer, whose books I began devouring.
I met rooted Christian thinkers whose testimonies I admired, including Richard Wurmbrand and Chuck Colson. But it was my day-to-day friends who enveloped me in the aroma of Christ, who gave me lasting treasures. That’s the work we can all do wherever we are, and it made my commonplace life miraculous.
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