From the somber, elegant memorial service Tuesday night at the Lincoln Memorial to the swearing-in of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president and Kamala D. Harris as the first female, first African American and first Asian American vice president on Wednesday, we could feel not simply the beginning of a new presidency but also a new national ethos. The nation has not experienced in recent memory such a dramatic shift in presidential tone, rhetoric and symbolism.

Fleeing Washington in disgrace, the classless former president departed Wednesday morning as he governed — self-absorbed, sullen and unable to fill the role of president for the entire country. Good riddance.

We then pivoted to the new presidency. Ahead of the inauguration, Biden, a genuinely religious man, joined first lady Jill Biden, Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff to attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Biden was prayerful, serious and sincere. Religion for the faithful and not for photo ops? Well, this was new — and at the same time a reminder of how things used to be.

From the get-go, the Capitol looked new and different. The brightly colored clothing and the diverse crowd and presenters signaled that we are done with the gloomy, monochromatic era.

In contrast to the dark, creepy speech about “American carnage" that we heard four years ago, Biden delivered an impressive, forward-looking and optimistic vision of America. He did not shy away from the riot unleashed on the Capitol this month. “From now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries,” Biden said. “As we look ahead in our uniquely American way: restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.”

To the delight of Americans sick of being gaslighted, Biden emphasized the importance of truth as an essential requirement of self-governance. He cautioned that “we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.” He returned to the topic even more forcefully. “Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit,” he said. “And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.” Only in this era would such statements be needed, let alone be controversial in some quarters.

This was realism and a direct challenge to end white supremacy. Biden did not sugarcoat the daunting problems. As he said: “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world.” But he balanced that with heartfelt trust in the nation and confidence in our ability to dig ourselves out — if only we can stop yelling at one another and demonizing each other.

Even the simple declarations he made were reflective of the horrendous experiences we have endured under an unfit president. “I give you my word, I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I’ll defend our democracy. I’ll defend America.” What a relief!

Biden, thankfully, did not equate unity with the absence of dissent. “The right to dissent peaceably, the guardrails of our republic, is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength,” he acknowledged. “Yet hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion.” But he did stick to his conviction that without decency, commitment to democracy and adherence to truth, we are lost. He implored Americans to defend what is precious and essential so that they can say “democracy and hope, truth and justice, did not die on our watch, but thrived [and] that America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world.”

It was among the best inauguration speeches in my memory. It was topped off by the gorgeous words of Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet. “We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one,” she said. "There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” And in a near perfect summation of Biden’s message she recited: “But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”

Now the hard part of governing begins. But at least we have hope and a morally centered president. And that, we have learned, makes all the difference in the world.

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