Focus on civility lends air of restoration to address

Bush echoes themes of father and Reagan

News analysis

January 21, 2001|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Just as he pleaded for civility in America's politics and compassion among its people in the campaign that brought him the presidency, George W. Bush called yesterday on the same virtues to advance the country's fortunes under his stewardship.

"Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment," he said. "It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment."

The new president's inaugural address was heavy with religious references. Bush sought spiritual guidance, while asking his fellow Americans to behave as "citizens, not spectators" in the work of "building communities of service and a nation of character."

His speech echoed earlier inaugural addresses from President Ronald Reagan and the new president's father, George Bush, in commending private good works as the partner of government in dealing with poverty and other social ills.

In his 1981 speech, Reagan declared that "government is not the solution to our problem" but the problem itself. And the senior Bush observed in 1989 that "we have more will than wallet, but will is what we need." The nation, he said then, would turn to "the goodness and courage of the American people" through what he liked to call "a thousand points of light."

Reagan's anti-government rhetoric sustained him through two terms. But Bush's pitch for citizen self-help came at a time of deepening recession, contributing to his defeat in 1992 at the hands of Bill Clinton.

Yesterday's ceremony was marked not only by civility but also by heavy irony - a George Bush regaining the presidency after Clinton's eight years in office. Not only Clinton, but also his vice president, Al Gore, who was defeated by the younger Bush in one of the most tumultuous elections in the nation's history, was on hand.

So was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose vote was part of the Supreme Court majority that settled the fierce dispute over Florida's 25 electoral votes in Bush's favor. Dressed in his gold-striped black robe out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, he administered the oath of office to Bush.

The new president began with thanks to both men, commending Gore "for a contest conducted with spirit and ended in grace." Gore returned the civility in kind, shaking Bush's hand with the barest trace of a grin and also applauding politely during and after his address.

A politician who talks often of what is in his heart and that of others, Bush did so again on this occasion, while providing little specific indication of his objectives. He did, however, reiterate his campaign calls for Social Security and Medicare reform, better schools and tax cuts. His reference to the latter was one of the few lines that brought applause from the crowd.

With the nation at peace and prosperous, Bush, unlike his Depression-era predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt or new presidents during the Cold War, such as John F. Kennedy, had no major crisis to inspire lofty inaugural rhetoric. Instead, both the atmospherics of the ceremony and the self-help theme lent a flavor of restoration to the day, with the younger Bush speaking some of the sentiments and proposals that his father, standing proudly and at times tearfully behind him, had earlier embraced.

The new president opened his address by observing that "the peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country." The comment was particularly pertinent, in light of the post-election ordeal he and the country had just endured. Yet he chose to make no reference to the fact that in achieving the presidency only by winning the electoral vote, he had lost the popular vote - only the fourth president with that dubious distinction.

Though he campaigned as "a unifier, not a divider," Bush had no specific words of conciliation or compromise toward the opposition party that might have given witness to the narrowness of his mandate as expressed by the popular vote.

Of the three earlier men who became president while losing the popular vote, two - John Quincy Adams in 1824 and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 - made mention of the fact in their inaugural addresses. The third - Benjamin Harrison, elected in 1888 - did not.

Adams, the only previous son of a president elected to the White House, became president after the popular-vote winner, Andrew Jackson, failed to win a majority of the electoral votes, and the House of Representatives chose Adams over him. In his inauguration speech, Adams observed:

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