Inaugural sentiments at war with Bush deeds

January 23, 2001|By Michael Olesker

GEORGE W. Bush's inauguration speech was so healing in its intent, so liberal in its reach and so poetic in its instinct that listeners could be forgiven for wondering which smarty-pants might have slipped it into his hands while Bush wasn't paying attention.

Was that George W. Bush or the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy reminding us "that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance"? Was it George W. Bush or Martin Luther King Jr. affirming that "Americans are called to enact this promise in our lives - and in our laws"? Was it George W. Bush or William Jefferson Clinton acknowledging, "The ambitions of some Americans are limited by ... hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth"?

The new president knows he slipped into office through history's back door, and knows he must reach out to millions of Democrats who might wish to demonize him in the same repugnant way Republicans worked to demonize Bill Clinton from the very first days of his presidency eight years ago.

And so Bush offered words of healing. Or, let's face it, his ghostwriters did. For the man who once declared, "They misunderestimate me," and the man who asked, "Is our children learning?" and the man who asked, "How many hands have I shaked?" cannot possibly be the writer of an inaugural line declaring the American story "a story of a flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand, enduring ideals."

Those are sweet and articulate words, and they make the heart thump. And, in a moment when we puff out the collective national chest, it's also a line - "flawed and fallible people" - to remind us not to get too full of ourselves, to remember how we are sometimes our own worst family enemies.

And there's the rub. We live in a time of buzz words, of shorthand phrases used as winks across the political aisle. For most of the past half-century (at least) it's been the liberal Democrats using the very phrases Bush used - not only "justice" and "prejudice," but the notion that everyone "belongs" and "deserves a chance."

It was Bush referring to "the promise in our lives - and in our laws," but all those with memories recall generations of conservative Republicans who fought every civil rights law at least since the earliest days of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, for heaven's sake, and declared through the days of Barry Goldwater, "You can't legislate morality" when nothing more was being asked than equal voting rights or an equal right to sit in a public restaurant.

Was that the Republican George W. Bush using such liberal code words, or George W. McGovern?

What confuses us, though, is the intersection of the new president's words and actions.

In his inaugural address, Bush said, "If we permit our economy to drift and decline, the vulnerable will suffer the most." But this is the man proposing a tax cut that would send 30 percent of the money to the richest 1 percent of the country and 60 percent of the money to benefit the richest 10 percent - and apparently let the bottom 90 percent of the public settle for whatever might be left over.

In his inaugural address, Bush said, "We will build our defenses beyond challenge, lest weakness invite challenge." Come again? According to the Center for Defense Information, America already spends more on its military than the next 12 biggest spenders combined. And most of those are our allies.

We now outspend second-place Russia by a ratio of more than 5-to-1. We account for a greater percentage of the planet's military spending now than we did at the height of the Reagan defense buildup that allegedly ended the Cold War. So what is it, exactly, that frightens us so much? Or is this just the spending of money to help all those defense contractors so helpful during the last round of campaign fund-raising?

In his inaugural address, Bush talked repeatedly of children and schools. Who's against kids? Who's against education? But we know that, as governor of Texas, his state ranked 50th in spending for teacher salaries, 41st in public-school funding and worst in the nation in the percentage of children without health insurance.

In his inaugural address, Bush decried "petty" politics, as he should. But was he casting stones at Democrats or at his own people who cast such slander about Sen. John McCain during the Republican primaries, or at a party that has given us such petty and destructive and divisive men as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan, David Duke and Tom DeLay, Bob Barr and Henry Hyde?

In his inaugural address, the new president talked of justice, and talked of healing, but he had already offered us John Ashcroft as attorney general. It's a choice that's appalling on so many levels - and so painfully mocks the healing language of George W. Bush's inaugural address - that the only mollifying gesture might be for Ashcroft to issue a guarantee: If confirmed, his first order of business would be an investigation of systematic voter fraud in the state of Florida.

Until then, everybody loved the new president's words of healing - and everybody hopes they signal a new day for both political parties.

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