Bush Starts Presidency With a Whisper

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President-elect George W. Bush addresses the nation from Austin

President-elect George W. Bush does not ride in on a high horse. Introduced at 10 p.m. Wednesday night in the Texas House of Representatives with a glowing recommendation from its Democratic Speaker, Bush spent little of his 15-minute speech on the subject of the past 36 days and not much more on the subject of himself.

Laura Bush. Dick Cheney. Al Gore. His supporters. Gore's supporters. Democrats in Texas. Democrats in Washington. His late friend and mentor Bob Bullock. These were familiar notes from before Nov. 7 — the uniter, not the divider. And Wednesday night, in his final victory speech of the five weeks that came afterward, Bush struck the pose of the hopeful innocent, ready to heal the nation and its capital with a gentle hand for every shoulder.

"The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington," Bush said. "It is the challenge of our moment."

"I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past."

Gore got better ratings, and better reviews. He was the story of this Wednesday, the vice president who had fought and fought until everyone ached and who had finally let go an hour before with a jaunty eloquence that left many watching — especially his sympathizers — wiping away a tear.

Bush seemed to recognize that. He didn't give the best speech of his life, as Gore had, but it didn't have to be. The words didn't soar, but they performed what Bush evidently considered a more important task on this Post-Election Day 36 — they nudged the nation forward, to subjects long forgotten. Education. Social Security. Medicare. Prescription drugs. Tax relief. Foreign policy. The military. Common ground.

And some boilerplate. The man who will become the 43rd president of the United States on Jan. 20 seemed to want to build a bridge not only between the parties, but between his campaign and tonight — and over the "long and trying period" in between. His concession to the problems with the Florida election was two mentions of race relations — no talk of electoral reform. No talk of ballots uncounted, or time run out.

Gore had quoted Lincoln; Bush quoted Jefferson. "The steady character of our countrymen is a rock to which we may safely moor... Unequivocal in principle, reasonable in manner, we shall be able I hope to do a great deal of good to the cause of freedom and harmony." As does Bush hope — that is obvious.

If America was waiting for a strong, commanding leader to ride out of this long televised civics lesson, they were disappointed. If they were instead hoping for a man made humble by limbo and wary by the poison of political warfare, they got one in George W. Bush.

Of course Bush the neophyte couldn't leave without saying something unintentionally funny on the first day of his election — "I ask for you to pray for this great nation..." — but he also made sure that that when he arrives in Washington next week and next year, the tone will not be bitter by any of his doing.

"I was not elected to serve one party, but one nation," Bush said. "The presidency is more than an honor, it is more than an office. It is a charge to keep, and I will give it my all."