Big events overshadow a small tribute to Bush


January 18, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- The bells toll. And though they toll in celebration, they seem to have a mournful tone.

A black cloud hung over the beginning of Bill Clinton's five-day inaugural festival.

While crooners prepared to croon and sax players warmed up their horns, missiles rained down upon Iraq.

The man directing the military strike was nowhere to be seen, however. George Bush was in seclusion in Camp David. This was Bill Clinton's day. Clinton is the victor.

And in America, to the victor goes the TV time.

Which was a lesson brought home to George Bush very directly just a few days ago:

The event is billed as a "A Tribute to George Bush." But there are only 20 tables in the tiny ballroom, and not all of them are filled.

The press platform is so empty that at first I think I have entered the wrong room. There are only three TV cameras set up, though normally a presidential press platform bristles with so many cameras and their long lenses that it looks like a World War II battleship.

There are a few famous faces in the crowd: Bob Dole, minority leader of the senate. Dick Thornburgh, former U.S. attorney general. U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the president. Doro Bush, the president's daughter.

A TV cameraman walks in carrying a Whopper and a soft drink. He unwraps the sandwich and chews on it slowly as Dole begins to speak. There is no need to videotape what Dole is saying. Nobody cares.

"George Bush will be remembered for many things," Dole says. "For making the world a safer place. For his courage in drawing a line in the sand. For a new spirit of volunteerism. And I've got to believe that 5 or 10 or 15 years from now, when people look back, he will be remembered for the ADA."

The what? Luckily, there is a press release: The Americans With Disabilities Act, signed by George Bush on July 26, 1990, was one of the most sweeping civil rights bills in history, empowering 43 million disabled citizens.

And if you look real, real hard in all the recent stories appraising the Bush years, you might find a word or two about it.

George Bush enters the room. He looks somber and distracted. Though nobody in the room but he knows it, he has just ordered the first air strike on Iraq. (It will later be delayed due to bad weather.)

The "appreciations" begin. Doro Bush rises and barely gets through her brief remarks, saying she must stop because "in our family, when we talk about family, the tears begin to flow."

Her father gives her a small, knowing smile.

Thomas McKeithan II, a young, blind, black man speaks from his seat. "If I could sing a song," he says, "it would be, 'Oh, What A Leader; Oh, What a Leader.' I had to struggle and fight my way, but I made it because of you. And because of you, Mr. President, my brothers and sisters in Somalia will have a real chance in life. God bless you, Mr. President."

George Bush looks down at the table in front of him.

Justin Dart, chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities speaks next.

"For your courage and justice and treating us as American

citizens and not society's children, we love you," he says to Bush, who sits next to him. "You have earned a rest."

Bush's throat works, but no words come out. He reaches over and grips Dart's arm.

Bush pauses a moment and then rises and walks to the lectern. "I'm not sure I know exactly what I will be doing a few months from now," he says, "but I want to say this: I want to stay involved. I want to help.

"I'll be a private citizen. Not sitting at the head table. Out of the government. Limelight. But I want to help. I admire you. I respect you. I love you."

Those in the crowd who are able to stand do so and applaud. The rest applaud from their wheelchairs.

"Thank you," George Bush says in what is now almost a whisper. "And may God bless you."

Presidents hear applause many times in their lives. But some applause is more meaningful than others.

And if, when Bill Clinton leaves office, he hears applause like this, he will truly have a cause for celebration.

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