Inaugural address must be a unifier

January 17, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the inauguration of the new president, the traditional anticipation of the event has been tempered here by a degree of apprehension, evinced by the heavy security measures being taken and a distinct air of uncertainty about the president-elect.

A record number of protest groups has applied for and received police permits to demonstrate along the line of march and elsewhere in the capital. Also, unprecedented precautions, including electronic metal detectors at strategic points, will channel and monitor the flow of spectators to the inauguration parade.

The reason, clearly, is the public aftertaste about George W. Bush's route to the Oval Office -- through the Electoral College by way of the U.S. Supreme Court rather than via the national popular vote, won by Al Gore. Many of the organized protesters will be openly challenging the validity and justice of Mr. Bush's victory despite its constitutional legitimacy.

Other demonstrators concerned over Mr. Bush's conservative agenda and certain Cabinet appointments will piggyback on the continuing questions about his election and join the protest. It will be a means of exerting pressure on him to desist from trying to implement policies for which they argue he received no clear mandate from the voters.

As for Mr. Bush, the closeness of the election underscored his inability to fully sell himself and his agenda to the American electorate, especially in the face of a Democratic opposition that harped on his lack of national experience and suspicions about his intelligence. Widespread doubts about him linger, compounded by early post-election political missteps.

After campaigning as "a unifier, not a divider," he has already engendered fierce partisan opposition with controversial right-wing Cabinet appointments such as the already withdrawn Linda Chavez for labor secretary, the embattled John Ashcroft for Justice and Gale Norton for Interior. At the same time, his determination to force congressional consideration of his $1.6 trillion tax cut in the teeth of stiff Democratic opposition and lack of fervent GOP support paints him as more confrontational than conciliatory -- wielding more stick than carrot.

The contrast in Washington is striking between the atmosphere that exists today and the one 40 years ago, when as a younger reporter I stood below the inaugural stand at the Capitol and watched another untested new president, John F. Kennedy, take the oath after a comparably close election.

Then, the mood in the crowd, and in the country, about a new generation taking hold was electric and buoyant, overshadowing partisan disappointment at the election's outcome, at least for that day. At age 43, he was the first American born in the 20th century to become president.

Part of the reason for the upbeat mood was Kennedy himself -- the handsome young leader of poise and erudition calling on the nation on that sunny, frigid day to rise above personal pursuits: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." The summons to sacrifice resonated effectively in the Cold War era, when the challenge to the nation's security was accepted as real and immediate.

Subsequent new presidents also took the oath amid public moods of hopeful anticipation -- Jimmy Carter in 1976 after the gloom of Watergate, Ronald Reagan in 1980 after the disappointment of Mr. Carter, Bill Clinton in 1992 after the disappointment of the senior George Bush.

Even Richard Nixon in 1968, with his election-night pledge to "bring America together" and his advice from the same inaugural stand to "surmount what divides us and cement what unites us," managed that day to counter somewhat the long-held doubts about him.

President-elect Bush approaches his own inauguration with the task of allaying the early reservations about the controversial nature of his election and his pre-inaugural moves that seem in conflict with his claim that he is a unifier. For this reason, his address from the Capitol on Saturday warrants special attention as an indication that he is cognizant of those reservations -- and does intend to be a unifying force in sharply divided Washington.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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