President Biden’s inaugural ceremony and speech on Wednesday drew positive reviews — even from some grouchy Republicans. Less widely seen and remarked upon, however, were some touches from the day that underscored the sea change we are experiencing.

In the late afternoon, Biden administered the oath to White House employees in a virtual ceremony via Zoom. He told them, “History measures us . . . and our fellow Americans will measure us by how decent, honorable and smart we have been in looking out for their interests.” He made sure they knew he was serious about a new tone: “I’m not joking when I say this: If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. . . . No ifs, ands or buts.” He added, “Everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That’s been missing in a big way the last four years.”

Biden also acknowledged that they will make mistakes but that he expects them to own up to their errors and correct them. “And I’ll need your help to help me correct them.” That humility and honesty has been absent for far too long.

In addition to the finely crafted inaugural speech, the cultural selections for the inauguration were also inspired, including African American poet Amanda Gorman, conservative country music star Garth Brooks, Italian American pop idol Lady Gaga and Latina superstar Jennifer Lopez, who serenaded the audience with the classic folk song, “This Land is Your Land.” If you wanted a full range of American arts and entertainment, as well as a message that diversity makes our lives richer, you would have been hard-pressed to come up with a better assortment.

Rarely has a poem threatened to upstage a speech, but Gorman’s words were uplifting in a way that a speech cannot be. As the saying goes, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But perhaps the poetry helps send us in the right direction. Gorman’s remark that “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished” was a generous interpretation of our failings, but also an exhibition of grace — something in short supply. You can talk about unity, but the sentiment packs an emotional punch when described as Gorman did: “We lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.” Culture is not incidental to governance; it is essential to it.

Finally, we witnessed a remarkable confluence of events: Vice President Harris, making an historic advancement, presided over the swearing in of her replacement, Alex Padilla, the first Hispanic senator from California. She also swore into office Jewish millennial Jon Ossoff and African American preacher Raphael Warnock, both Democratic senators from Georgia. If you worry that we are hopelessly hobbled by a false nostalgia of reactionary forces, here was proof that systemic change — while not easy — is possible.

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