Bush takes the nation's helm

43rd president promises to lead with courage and character

Calls on nation for `new commitment'

Declares his administration will `rise above expectations'

January 21, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - George Walker Bush was sworn into office yesterday as the country's 43rd president and promised to lead by the values of "civility, courage, compassion and character."

In an expansive, inclusive inaugural address, the elder son of former President George Herbert Walker Bush called on the rest of the nation to make a "new commitment" to those same qualities.

"What you do is as important as anything government does," Bush said.

In a distant echo of John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech, he added: "I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort. ... I ask you to be citizens. Citizens not spectators. ... Responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character."

From atop the west steps of the Capitol, the new president gazed through a cold mist at tens of thousands of spectators packed onto the lawn below and stretching out along the National Mall.

The largely pro-Bush crowd also included thousands of protesters, who jeered the new president's motorcade along the inaugural parade route and waved signs reading "Hail to the Thief."

Bush never referred explicitly, in his speech, to the disputed election that brought him to power or to the task of bridging the partisan divide that looms as perhaps the biggest obstacle to a successful presidency.

But at a luncheon afterward with congressional leaders, he said that those who are predicting that "nothing will happen, except for finger-pointing and name-calling and bitterness" would be proved wrong.

"I'm here to tell the country that things will get done," Bush told senators and representatives from both parties. "We're going to rise above expectations."

With a Republican in the White House, the Republican Party now controls both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government for the first time in nearly a half-century. However, the Republican margins of control in both houses of Congress are so tiny that Bush will probably need bipartisan coalitions to gain approval for any major initiatives.

The 54-year-old Texan is only the second president to follow his father into that office. The other was John Quincy Adams, in 1825, which has prompted Bush's father to begin impishly calling his son "Quincy."

Bush, coatless in a dark business suit with a blue striped tie, took the oath of office at two minutes past noon. Vice President Dick Cheney, who wore an overcoat with the collar turned up, was sworn in a few minutes earlier.

A stiff northwest breeze drove a steady mist under raw, gray skies as William H. Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, administered the oath. Bush's left hand rested on a Bible held by his wife Laura, the new first lady, who stood beaming beside him.

The normally lighthearted Bush appeared unusually solemn, as if the weight of his new responsibilities had suddenly become real. He squeezed his eyes shut during the invocation and flashed mostly tight smiles during the relatively brief inaugural ceremony.

Bush said later that he had "really relished this magnificent moment" when the presidency became his. But he confessed, with characteristic directness, "I'm not so sure how much of it I'm actually going to remember."

Bush, who often jokes that he hails from a family of weepers, managed to keep his emotions largely under control. However, after reciting the oath, his eyes welled up when he embraced his father.

The senior Bush, unseated by Bill Clinton in 1992 after a single term, could be seen wiping way a tear.

Though the new president assumed office at a crisis-free time, with relative peace abroad and prosperity at home, yesterday's proceedings seemed freighted with unusual historical significance. It was the first inauguration of a new century and of a new millennium, as well as the 200th anniversary of the first inauguration held at the Capitol (Thomas Jefferson, in 1801).

When President Clinton, the outgoing leader, was introduced, so, too, was "the first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton," the only presidential spouse ever elected to public office.

Among those arrayed in the traditional tableau of national leaders on the inaugural podium were most of the key players from the extraordinary post-election saga, including Vice President Al Gore, the unsuccessful rival; former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who led the Bush forces in the Florida ballot fight; and members of the Supreme Court, who finally brought the dispute to an end.

In a gracious aside at the start of his 15-minute speech, Bush turned and thanked President Clinton for his service to the nation. He also praised Gore "for a contest conducted with spirit, and ended with grace."

Bush drew applause when he challenged the nation, and implicitly the members of Congress seated around him, to "show courage in a time of blessing, by confronting problems instead of passing them on to future generations."

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