Peter A. Finocchio, Contributing Writer
We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom--symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change…
So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
- President John F. Kennedy, January 20th, 1961
These words were spoken by our nation’s 35th President in his inaugural address nearly 56 years ago today. John F. Kennedy had just won a close and bitterly divisive election, but in his inaugural speech he called upon his fellow Americans to come together. He began his speech by reminding his fellow Americans that the ceremony was not about the President but about the presidency. It was a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power that has marked presidential transitions since the nation’s birth. It was a time when, whether one was a Democrat, Republican, or neither, fellow Americans could come together after a hard-fought election and their freedom to do exactly that. His remarks were as energetic as they were unifying, speaking to the heart of every American whether he had voted for him or not. To those who had voted for him, the inauguration was a moment of joy and pride to have played a part in making this historic moment a reality. But more significantly to those who had not voted for him, they were words of comfort and reassurance. President Kennedy said to those who had voted against him, “We can work together. We both love the same country. We both want the same bright future for our sons and daughters.” This is exactly the spirit that an inauguration is supposed to be about: pride, patriotism, and unity.
Fast forward to today. Unity does not come to mind when one thinks of the presidential inauguration just one day away. More than 60 Democratic lawmakers have declared their intention to boycott President-elect Donald J. Trump’s inauguration on Friday. Among them, both my current and my former representative in the House of Representatives. My current Representative, Don Beyer from Virginia’s 8th Congressional District declared in his statement: “[Trump’s] values and his actions are the antithesis of those I hold dear. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to pretend to be part of this inaugural celebration.”
Congressman Beyer’s case, however, is built upon a false premise. Attending the inauguration doesn’t signify agreement with Trump or even celebrating the fact that he is the President. It signifies celebration of the process and a willingness to play a positive role in that transition whether one agrees with the person or not. My former Representative, Gerry Connolly from Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, said that Trump’s “behavior and harmful words during and after the campaign have left the country I love with open, bleeding wounds. Instead of binding those wounds, he has poured salt on them. Instead of unifying us, he has reveled in driving wedges between us.” The irony in this statement is that the words of Congressman Connolly and his compatriots in protest are pouring salt on the nation’s wounds and driving wedges between fellow Americans as well. They are complaining about the President-elect’s divisiveness, but their actions are sowing the seeds of division even deeper than they already are. Congressman John Lewis went so far as to say that he does not believe Donald Trump will be a “legitimate President.” One can respect and admire Congressman Lewis’s heroic actions and conviction in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and still be critical of his words and actions present day.
In John Lewis’ case, this was not the first time he boycotted an inauguration or called an elected President illegitimate. He had made the same remarks about President George W. Bush and skipped his inauguration as well. Congressman John Lewis’s righteous actions in the march for civil rights do not exempt him from criticism over other actions. His words regarding both Presidents Bush and Trump and the inauguration boycott endorsed several of his fellow Democrats are irresponsible and disrespectful to the millions of Americans who voted in November’s presidential election, regardless of their favored candidate.
As President Kennedy reflected those many years ago, the inaugural ceremony is not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom. It is disappointing that so many elected officials don't want to celebrate this freedom when their side has lost. It goes without saying that Democrats did lose November’s election. But despite not having majorities in Congress or controlling the White House, Democrats still have an important role to play in Washington as the opposition party. Millions are looking up to them for leadership and they have a responsibility to act responsibly. No party or person ever has a total "lock" on power in our country.
Governing requires cooperation and compromise and it has since the first grand compromise that birthed our Constitution. That means that Democrats can still play a significant part in the process. They must reach out to Republicans and seek common ground for the common good. Rehashing the divisive battles of the last election isn't going to help Democrats accomplish any of their priorities. Nor, more importantly, will it help our country move forward or come together. Democrats should attend the inauguration and be willing to work with President Trump to help America move forward. They won’t see eye-to-eye on everything, or probably even most things, but even the smallest gesture of sincerity can go a long way. By boycotting the inauguration, they are poisoning the well before day one.