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Attention readers: Froma Harrop is off this week. Please enjoy the following column by Jeff Robbins.
The expression commonly used to capture the unique power of a president to ele- vate America’s character was coined by Theodore Roosevelt, according to historians. Reading aloud a message he had drafted for the American people, he mused to those present, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.” In TR-speak, the word “bully” was early 20th-century white Anglo-Saxon Protestant for “superb.”
In his first five months in office, President Joe Biden has employed his superb pulpit superbly, reminding us of who we are or, at least, who we could be.
Last week, our commander in chief hosted a commemoration of LGBTQ Pride Month at the White House, acknowledging a uniformed transgender lieutenant colonel and telling her in front of the entire country, “Thank you for your service to the nation.” He wished a happy birthday to the hus- band of his Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Cabinet secretary to win Senate confir- mation. Buttigieg put the occasion in crisp perspective. “Not that long ago,” he observed, “well within the lifetimes of many people in this room, being ‘outed’ could be disqualifying from public service — any public service, not just being a Cabinet officer. Yet today here I am. Here you are. Here we are — standing in the East Room in the company of the president of the United States and the first lady, wishing each other happy Pride.”
Binding together a country that has come apart and lost its moorings under the stress of four years of mean- spirited juvenile delinquency at the top is a daunting challenge, but one that clearly has the new president’s focused attention. A week before the Pride Month event, Biden convened members of the Congressional Black Caucus and 94-year- old Opal Lee, a longtime advocate for a federal holi- day recognizing the end of slavery in the United States, for a signing ceremony establishing June 19, or Juneteenth, as both a holiday and a day of national reflection. “Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a greater morning to come,” said Biden, who pronounced the holiday one “in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on America and continues to take.” With that, he made official a day in which America would take note of what Black Americans have been forced to overcome. “I wish all Americans a happy Juneteenth,” Biden said, choosing to close his remarks on an uplifting note.
In late May, with the increase in violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic too demonstrable to disregard, Biden took advantage of the presidential platform to spotlight anti- Asian hate crimes, con- fronting a sick phenomenon that has been stoked by the malign taunting of his predecessor. Once again, he deployed the White House stage, signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. “My message to all of those who are hurting is: We see you, and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias,” he said.
The same week, with a poisonous resurgence of antisemitism on both the right and the left emanating from white supremacists and certain self-professed progressives alike, Biden once again used the bully pulpit to stand up for those being bullied. “I will not allow our fellow Americans to be intimidated or attacked because of who they are or the faith they practice,” said the president about the venom being unleashed at American Jews. “We cannot allow the toxic combination of hatred, dangerous lies and conspiracy theories to put our fellow Americans at risk.”
“Pride is back at the White House,” proclaimed Biden at last week’s LGBTQ event. It’s true. We once again have a president with values we can respect. It is a fragile pride, an endangered pride and by no means a fully secure one. But after a long drought of optimism, it is something to feel optimistic about.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.