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Presidential inauguration: Historical moments just keep coming, and media keep rising to the challenge of helping us understand them | COMMENTARY

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The thing about history is you don’t know it is history when you are witnessing it. Historians Ken Burns and Doris Kearns Goodwin made that point Tuesday night in an interview on CNN with Anderson Cooper about the inauguration. They were asserting that we are living through one of the four great crises of American life; The Civil War, Great Depression and World War II being the other three.

I am not trying to dispute the larger truth of the statement about not knowing history as it happens. But I am pretty sure I have been witnessing history on the big screen in my living room the past two weeks. And again on Wednesday as Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States, the better media outlets helped me sort through the sea of images and mountain of words they were delivering non-stop.

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Typical of the visual, CNN offered a split screen with President-elect Joe Biden at mass in the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington on the right side of the frame, and Air Force One lifting off for Florida with President Donald Trump and his family aboard on the left.

“The sacred and the profane,” CNN analyst and former aide to President Barack Obama David Axelrod told viewers. He went on to talk about the seriousness, substance and sobriety that Mr. Biden projected as opposed to the mercurial, childish, pleasure-seeking Mr. Trump.

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I often don’t like talking heads telling me what I should think about the images I am seeing. But when the images are as potent and symbolic as those we have been seeing the last two weeks, I’ll take all the help I can get in understanding a possible deeper meaning to them.

There was no shortage of potent images and poetic sounds in Wednesday’s coverage, from a spirited rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” by Jennifer Lopez, to a spiritual version of “Amazing Grace” from Garth Brooks. There was music and wisdom in the poetry of Amanda Gormon.

The highlight of the inauguration ceremony was Mr. Biden’s speech.

His strong words matter, such as: “We must end this uncivil war,” and “There is truth and there are lies.” But what mattered most is the fiery manner in which they were delivered. I have not seen and heard this strong a speech from Mr. Biden at any point in the election.

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Showing the same kind of insight and efficiency as Mr. Axelrod, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams summed up the speech in only a dozen words: “The message was the U.S. is back and it’s under new management.”

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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