“Words Matter” by Ellen O’Donnell

On a warm July night in 1969, I leaned against my dad’s chest on our beach house couch. I was a sleepy seven-year-old, not accustomed to being awake after 10 p.m. Mom sat in a chair across the room while my 10-year-old brother lay on the floor, transfixed by the television three feet away. The grainy satellite images on the 13-inch screen mesmerized me as Neil Armstrong seemed to float from a rocket ship, an American flag in his gloved hand. On July 24, 1969, he pronounced through crackly audio, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Somehow, even then, I understood that words matter. When history unfolds before our eyes, words capture what our emotions cannot. Words curate history.

Sometimes, narrative exceeds expectation. While working at Salve Regina University in 1986, I  snuck away from my desk one morning to a freshman dormitory common room. A gaggle of undergraduate girls huddled around the television, their curiosity summoned by Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to shuttle to space. I grabbed a chair and listened. 4, 3, 2, 1… lift off

A plume of red fire jettisoned the Challenger toward the heavens. Mission Control rattled off NASA jargon: Roger, Roll Challenger. Throttling down, 9 nautical miles. The narration trailed off as white smoke filled the screen.

On January 28, 1986, at 11:30 a.m., a common room, campus, and country wept. At 5 p.m., President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. His speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, gifted him with the words to capture a nation’s communal grief.

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.

Ronald Reagan

On September 11, 2001, two planes devastated two towers. The horror played out on the Today Show as I folded laundry and my two-year-old daughter played, unaware of the of the cataclysmic change this moment would bring to our country.

George W. Bush was not a lyrical man, and his address to a broken citizenry that evening was not magically woven. Instead, Bush rose among the rubble of that deadly scene three days later. With a bullhorn in his hand and an arm draped around the shoulder of an exhausted New York City firefighter, he galvanized a confused and hopeless crowd of first responders.

I want you all to know that America today, America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn…

George W. Bush

In a remarkable moment, a firefighter shouted at the president, “I can’t hear you.”  

President Bush replied, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

Presidents Reagan and Bush found the words a country needed: one elegant, one simple. Each met his purpose, and we learned that in historical moments, whether spun from golden thread or straight from the gut, words matter.

Like the Challenger explosion, the events of January 6, 2021 marked history. Through the Pro-forma certification of electoral college votes, this day would secure Joseph R. Biden as the next President of the United States. I was a battered, exhausted Democrat who decided to ride the happy wave of two senate wins in Georgia the previous night right into something I had never taken the time to watch. I wanted to see the certification. It was a day to lean into history.

One block away from the Capitol, Donald Trump made his own history. Powerful words marked a speech loaded with dog whistles to violence, perhaps none more inciteful than his closing lines:

And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them.  Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.

Donald Trump

Trump’s finale drew raucous cheers and guttural chants. Within minutes, television cameras revealed a Capitol surrounded. I held my breath while insurrectionists burst through barriers, shattered windows, and stormed the seat of our government, wrapped in Confederate flags. I knew that words mattered to each of them.

On the morning of January 20, 2021, I  felt lighter. A virtual return to the Capitol for the inauguration was a balm, and the President-elect a full pendulum swing in tone from his predecessor. Biden took his oath, and then the podium, and delivered this Biden-esque sentence: “Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy.” The earnest, humble message of the comparatively short address captivated me. Aggrandizement is not Biden’s style, and amid national reckoning, his words gave context to history.

Here we stand, where 108 years ago at another inaugural, thousands of protestors tried to block brave women from marching for the right to vote. Today, we mark the swearing-in of the first woman in American history elected to national office – Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change.

Joe Biden

In a scant twenty minutes, our new president sent forth a call for unity, powerful in its simplicity. The tightness I carried for four years released.

Words do matter. It was enough for me.

And then came the poet.

In the hands of a radiant, confident 22-year-old woman, words turned a cold January day warm and injected joy into veins clogged with exhaustion.

Amanda Gorman took the podium and launched into a poetic performance, her motions as important as her voice. Was it my imagination, or did clouds give way to the sun as her fingers danced?  Her message soared over a Capitol that, only a week before, had been brought to its knees.

If I leaned forward to hear the humble message of a new president, I leaned back to better take in words written by our young Poet Laureate.

That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. Being American is being more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

Amanda Gorman

An impeachment trial came some weeks later, and United States senators sat in judgment of the former President’s words. By a clear majority, 57-43, we were reminded, once again, that words do matter. That crowds can be whipped into a frenzy; that we ought to own every syllable and vowel that falls from our mouths.

An astronaut marked history.

Three presidents sought to comfort and unite.

A young poet uplifted and inspired.

A fourth president incited vitriol and violence.

They each found words that contextualized history as it unfolded. Some soared, others simplified, one ignited mayhem, but all put words to moments – each curated history for a nation and reminded us that words matter.