As George W. Bush gazed down the Mall at the thousands of Americans who had come to see him inaugurated, he tried not to look at his father. He knew that the elder Bush was bound to "become emotional," as the younger Bush had put it a few days before, and he didn't want his father's emotions to become "contagious." Only after he had been sworn in did the nation's 43d president briefly turn and embrace the 41st president. The cameras caught George W's face contorting to suppress tears, while his eyes glistened. His father flicked at his eye with a gloved finger and clenched his jaw in a tight grimace through his son's moving speech.
Bushes, by their own testimony, cry easily. But this was a day, and a speech, for dignity, decorum, gravity, self-control. Sentiment must have surged and raged in the hearts of both Bushes--the father to see the son assume his mantle after a depressing defeat in 1992 and eight years of Clintonism, the son to have finally overcome the snickers and doubts that he was ready to even try for the Oval Office. Perhaps only Al Gore, whose defeat last fall was almost freakish and to millions of his followers quite unfair, had more reason to hide what he was really feeling from the vast national audience. But for Bush, this was an occasion that called for immense self-discipline, for clarity, for sureness of purpose.
In the 14 minutes he took to make his Inaugural Address, the new president had a great deal to accomplish. He had to lay claim to legitimacy, which is questioned in many quarters--from disenfranchised African-Americans in Florida to foreign leaders who wonder about a superpower commander in chief with a sometimes shaky grasp of geography, much less geopolitics. He had to set a new, more civilized tone in a capital city that has put partisan bickering, posturing and scandalmongering on Internet time. He had to quiet old mutterings that he was a spoiled scion of privilege who had inherited, not earned, his rank. And he had to capture the spotlight from his showy, demanding, often entertaining predecessor.
That wasn't easy. Bill Clinton gave three farewell addresses in his last three days in office and seemed reluctant to make the short flight to New York. At Andrews Air Force Base he declared, with a raffish grin, "I've left the White House. But I'm still here." With Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate, the Clintons are really only moving down the street. As the former First Lady--now the only Clinton who holds elective office--climbed into the limo after the Inaugural, President Bush appeared to whisper to her, "I'll be seeing a lot of you."
It's doubtful that Bush relishes the prospect. Still, in his Inaugural Address, he was determined to exude confidence. Gone--for now--was that deer-in-the-headlights look that had made voters nervous at other important ceremonial moments. His model may have been less his father than Ronald Reagan. In black leather cowboy boots, speaking with his west Texas twang, Bush looked rangy and calm. Like Reagan, he invoked America's special destiny in religious terms. Reagan often described America as a "shining city on a hill," a nation imbued with God's grace and a sense of mission. Bush, too, spoke of "an Angel [who] rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm." He was quoting a Virginia statesman named John Page who wrote Thomas Jefferson after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, marveling that the tiny, fledgling republic could break away from the British Empire. Bush, who presses his eyes tight shut when he prays and often reads the Bible in the early morning, was earnestly asking for the Deity to continue to watch over the "American story." Throughout the address, Bush labored mightily to invoke God's help, but he drew his loudest cheer when he spoke of mammon: his pledge to cut taxes.
Bush studied John F. Kennedy's brief Inaugural Address before preparing his own. Bush's themes of courage and service echoed JFK's--without the heavy overhang of the "long twilight struggle" of the cold war, but with the same emphasis on duty and commitment, words Bush repeated several times. Compassion and unity were other themes he emphasized. Bush is acutely aware that for all his efforts to reach out to blacks and other minorities with his campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism," he won less than 10 percent of the black vote. The new president seemed to obliquely, but ruefully, acknowledge the divisions he must overcome. "Sometimes our differences are so deep," he said, "it seems we share a continent, but not a country."
Perhaps the most pointed word in Bush's address was "civility." Throughout the campaign, he talked about raising the tone in Washington. Some of that was just standard-issue running against Washington as a hothouse of selfish, smearing pols and hacks. But Bush knows full well that, with the Senate split 50-50 and the House only narrowly Republican-controlled, he must find a way to overcome the fractiousness that has become routine on Capitol Hill. Bush also kept coming back to "character," a not-so-subtle dig at his predecessor, who sat just behind him. Indeed, the subliminal message of Bush's Inaugural speech may be summarized as: not Clinton. The Clinton years were noisy, messy, lively, chaotic. Even the outgoing president's last 24 hours in office threatened to suck up all the media attention, as Clinton announced his own plea bargain to head off prosecution or permanent disbarment for testifying falsely under oath in the Monica Lewinsky affair, then pardoned some of his old cronies from Whitewater days. George W. Bush wants the White House to recover some of its dignity, to rise above baby-boomer self-indulgence and aspire to the order and self-discipline prized by the Greatest Generation.
That may indeed be like trying to tame the whirlwind. Forces that began long before Bill Clinton got into office--media ambushes, heavily financed phony "grass roots" lobbying battles, the incessant clattering of the scandal machinery--have made Washington a rough town in which to seek "civility." The storm will no doubt rage on, no matter what Bush does. But on Saturday, as he spoke sparely but proudly in the cold drizzle, the new president, who so narrowly won the office, took an important step toward establishing himself, toward calming fears about his gravitas, toward offering at least the hope of steady leadership.