Randall Balmer: A time for healing

  • President Gerald Ford (right) and Jimmy Carter shake hands before they start their debate at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater on Oct. 6, 1976, in San Francisco. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/6/2020 6:40:42 AM

Just after noon on Jan. 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter, newly sworn in as president of the United States, opened his inaugural address by thanking his predecessor, Gerald R. Ford, for “all he has done to heal our land.”

It was an extraordinary gesture. The 1976 presidential campaign had been hard fought. Ford, who ascended to the presidency following the resignation of Richard Nixon, narrowly survived a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination. Some polls had Ford trailing Carter by 40 percentage points as he headed into the general election, burdened both by the stain of Watergate and by his preemptive pardon of Nixon. But Ford had battled back, losing to Carter by just under 3% of the popular vote.

On that cold day in Washington, however, the new president was gracious toward his erstwhile opponent, trying a set a tone for his presidency.

Presidential transitions are always fraught, especially when the office shifts from one political party to another. John Adams set the precedent for the peaceful transfer of power, conceding to Thomas Jefferson following the bitter election of 1800, a campaign in which Adams accused his opponent of religiously heterodox ideas and untoward sympathy with France.

Most outgoing presidents have followed Adams’s precedent, but Donald Trump has refused to concede that he lost the election (although he seems finally to acknowledge that Joseph Biden will be inaugurated next month). More ominously, something like 70% of Republicans believe that the election was not fair.

If ever we needed healing, it is now.

In the wake of an administration that has shattered all norms of presidential behavior, Americans are deeply divided, more perhaps than any time since the Civil War. Trump played on those divisions – race, class, religion – to win election four years ago, and he has shown no willingness to ratchet down the rhetoric.

Biden campaigned as a reconciler, someone who has spent his long career as senator and as vice president reaching across ideological divides. Despite those instincts, however, many in his own party, chastened by the naked partisanship of the past four years, are in no mood to compromise.

Biden faces the formidable task of rising above those tensions. Can he do it? I expect that he’s inclined to try. As the president-elect said in his Thanksgiving message, “we need to remember we’re at war with a virus – not with each other.”

Perhaps a better question is, how will Biden’s overtures be received? Once again, history may provide a clue. In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Barack Obama recounts his efforts to enlist Republican support early in his presidency, including the selection of Judd Gregg, Republican senator from New Hampshire, as his secretary of commerce. Gregg readily accepted, but he withdrew a week later after receiving pressure from Mitch McConnell, his Senate colleagues and Republican donors.

“They didn’t want compromise and consensus,” Obama concluded. “They wanted war. And they let it be known that Republican politicians without the stomach to resist my policies at every turn would not only find donations drying up but also might find themselves the target of a well-financed primary challenge.”

Partisanship – on both sides – has only escalated since, thereby complicating Biden’s ability to govern. Many Republicans, following Trump’s lead, have refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Already, Marco Rubio of Florida has criticized Biden’s appointees as “polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” and Tom Cotton of Arkansas called Biden’s choices “panda huggers who will only reinforce his instincts to go soft on China.”

Both politicians, it hardly needs to be said, are considered contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Carter’s words of gratitude toward his predecessor 44 years ago seem hopelessly out of step these days. But it’s probably worth noting that Carter forged a close relationship with Ford, the man he defeated in the 1976 election, a friendship that endured until the latter’s death in 2006. The two men had agreed that whoever died first would be eulogized by the other. When the occasion arrived, Carter remembered, “Jerry and I frequently agreed that one of the greatest blessings that we had, after we left the White House during the last quarter-century, was the intense personal friendship that bound us together.”

No one expects that Biden and Trump will ever be friends, but a few conciliatory words by the new president might go a long way toward healing the nation’s wounds.

Later in his inaugural address on that long ago January afternoon, Carter said that at the conclusion of his time in office, he hoped that people might say “that we had torn down the barriers that separated those of different race and region and religions, and where there had been mistrust, build unity, with a respect for diversity.”

Carter, shackled by a stubbornly sour economy, by renewed Soviet imperial ambitions and by the taking of American hostages in Iran, was unable to meet those goals. But his aspiration to level barriers remains relevant, even more so today. Barriers, after all, both literal and figurative, define our historical moment.

Biden could do a whole lot worse than articulate similar sentiments on Jan. 20. The real question is whether enough Americans are willing to follow him into a brighter, less fractious future.

(Randall Balmer, author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, teaches at Dartmouth College.)

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