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Star-spangled banner still waves over us

President Joe Biden’s inauguration, particularly the national anthem, offered hope to battered believers in the promise of America.

U.S. flags, representing those who could not attend the inauguration due to Covid-19, flutter in the wind at the National Mall on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021.
Flags cover the National Mall in Washington on Inauguration Day.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a strange song for a national anthem. Not just for its notoriously hard-to-sing melody that lurches over an octave and a half, straining toward that high F, “o’er the land of the freeeeeee.” Nor that fact the tune is an old English drinking song, repurposed.

I mean, what the song is about. It isn’t a celebration, like Australia’s. “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil.” It isn’t a call to arms, like “La Marseillaise.”

No, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is about surveying the wreckage. It’s a morning-after song, about waiting for the sun to come up to see if the British Navy, which has been shellacking Fort McHenry all night during the War of 1812, has prevailed.

“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

Is our flag still there?

Those “broad stripes and bright stars” were indeed still there. The British guns were ineffectual at the range they were being used, and the ships didn’t dare come in closer, within range of the fort’s battery.

And though I’ve been singing it all my life, with more gusto than tune, the song’s meaning never really sunk in. It never seemed a perfect fit for the moment, until Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday. When Lady Gaga came out in that enormous poof of red dress and sang, our nation emerged blinking from the four-year assault it has been enduring.

Into the very bright light of Wednesday morning, squinting into the swirling smoke, asking: “Are we still here? Are we still a nation?”

Yes. Yes we are.

The Biden inauguration seemed perfect. His speech, just right. “America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge,” he said. “Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

Exactly. The past two months make the shelling of Fort McHenry look like a hot oil massage. The one fact Americans 100 years from now will know about Donald Trump is that he lost the 2020 election, denied it based on nothing but pride, then waged war against his own country and was thwarted. The rest is commentary.

“We must end this uncivil war,” Biden said. It is naive to think Republican hearts will melt. If facts don’t matter, words matter even less. But as Biden said, we don’t need them all. We just need some, or as he put it, “enough of us.” It’ll be hard. We couldn’t unite around chocolate. Millions of Americans won’t wear a cotton mask to the 7-Eleven to save their grandmother’s life. Then again, a third of the colonists were happy under England. We won our freedom without them, and we will protect it despite their moral descendants.

I only tweeted two words during the inauguration. “Amanda Gorman!” The 22-year-old California poet made a brilliant counterpart to the 78-year-old president.

“We’ve braved the belly of the beast,” she said. “And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

If you missed it, go to YouTube and watch.

“We shall not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.”

That’s the whole divide. Part of the country is terrified, desperate to get back to some imagined past when everybody was like them. And the rest are looking ahead, to the varied people we obviously are now and always will be. We could unify around doing the right thing, defeating the pandemic, fixing systemic racism, rejoining the warming world, welcoming the immigrants who are the lifeblood of our nation. Some will balk. Let ’em.

During the past four years, my go-to line was that we’d be lucky if this were the bottom, and if there weren’t far worse to come. I still feel that. But Wednesday, I began to hope that maybe we’ve hit rock bottom and are now bouncing up. That the dawn has come and our flag is still there — resembling the tattered sheet of faded red, ivory white and deep blue on display at the Smithsonian, yes. But still representing all the freedoms it has always stood for. Something to cherish and preserve.