Bush approaching his inaugural speech with focus on unity

Setting the right tone a crucial first step, historians suggest

January 18, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - If history can predict, George W. Bush will enjoy a rare opportunity Saturday when he delivers his inaugural address. Past presidents have either seized - or squandered - this chance to harness the trust of those Americans who remain curious and open-minded on a day when their new leader's slate is clean.

"This certainly will be the biggest speech he's ever given in terms of the number of people who will watch," said Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the president-elect. Bush will speak at noon from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, moments after taking the oath of office. "It is the singular beginning to his administration," Fleischer said. "He understands that."

Bush began crafting his speech in late December, aides said. Historians say a new president should steer clear of sharp partisanship, and Bush plans to follow that admonition, focusing instead on how the United States is "one nation," and sounding conciliatory themes such as "healing" and "unity."

Bush rehearsed the speech at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, earlier this week, and was expected to resume practice sessions following his ceremonial arrival in Washington last night, doing run-throughs using a teleprompter at Blair House, the government's guest residence and his home until he moves across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

The first draft of the address - which aides say will run 10-12 minutes - was written by speechwriter Mike Gerson, a former magazine writer tapped by Bush last year to work on his major addresses.

Senior aides Karen Hughes and Karl Rove also offered substantial input. And Fleischer told reporters yesterday that the president-elect "has been very involved. He goes through there with a black Sharpie, crosses things out and makes suggestions and changes."

Marvin Olasky, a University of Texas professor who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism" that became a hallmark of the Bush campaign, recalled the candidate's compulsive involvement in the days before a major speech in Indianapolis in 1999. Olasky said Bush had aides call him frequently for help with the final edit.

"He just wanted to make sure the principles, positions and policies were more than rhetoric," said Olasky. "He really lasered in on questions, as opposed to, `Well that sounds nice.' " Bush's 11th-hour interrogations, said Olasky, were "like a Harvard Business School case study - `Here's a specific situation. How do we make it real?' "

Historians suggest that while a successful inaugural speech can successfully launch a new administration, the risks involved in giving a less-than-stellar address are not great - if only because few people recall the bad ones.

"If you do it well, it becomes memorable and sets a tone," said William E. Leuchtenberg, a presidential historian at the University of North Carolina. "But more often than not, inaugural addresses are quickly forgotten. [President] Clinton is an unusually arresting speaker. But nobody can remember a single thing he said [in his two inaugural addresses]."

Memorable inaugurals can give a White House instant credibility. One often-cited address was delivered to a luckless, Depression-scarred citizenry in 1933 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at the time faced skepticism from voters about his ability to lead.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Roosevelt said, as Americans huddled around radios.

William Henry Harrison's 1841 address is often considered the worst - and longest - speech. Harrison spoke for 105 minutes on a blustery, snowy day in Washington. He died of pneumonia four weeks later.

Bush is no stranger to inaugurals, having delivered two - in 1995 and 1999 - as governor of Texas. Both were notable for their lack of specifics and for their focus on responsibility and family. "Responsibility starts at home," he said in the first. "Every piece of legislation that crosses my desk will be judged by whether it keeps families together, safe and strong."

Theodore Sorensen, the advisor who wrote President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural in which he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country," said Bush must understand that once he takes the oath, the stakes when delivering any speech will be higher.

"A president's words are presented as the policy of the United States," Sorensen said. "You can make a successful speech as governor, or a candidate for president, that raises the right questions, sounds the alarms and attacks and criticizes the past. But when you make a speech as president, none of that is important. Now, you have to come up with answers."

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