Bush's Opening High Note

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George W. Bush takes the oath of office from Chief Justice William Rehnquist

President Bill Clinton was there, of course, and Senator Hillary Clinton, and the Gores and all the swirling dramas among them. The Carters were in the crowd, and the elder Bushes — everyone watching to see if George would cry. And of course the Cheneys, and the new First Lady, and the new president, George W. Bush, walking onstage just after 11:30 a.m., accompanied by a just-barely bipartisan entourage of senators and congressman all accompanied by the ghosts of John Quincy Adams and his father.

At 12:01 and 30 seconds on January 20, just like the Constitution says, George W. Bush put his hand on a very old Bible, and repeated after Rehnquist. So help him God.

And then he gave one heck of an inaugural address — brief, elegant, generous, even inspiring.

"This peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country. With a simple oath, we affirm old traditions, and make new beginnings.... I am honored and humbled to stand here, where so many of America's leaders have come before me, and so many will follow."

The lyrical, wide-ranging and not-too-shabbily- delivered 14-minute speech was a description of this next chapter of "the American story," George W. Bush's U.S.A. — conservative, compassionate, inclusive, unflinching and ruled above all by its own citizens as much as its government, and he made it sound pretty good.

There were brief nods to the manner of his election, first to Al Gore for a contest "conducted in spirit and ended in grace," then to those who saw not a president up there Saturday but an impostor. "Many doubt the promise — even the justice — of our own country," Bush said, before promising to prove them wrong.

The leads of the speech had been telegraphed by Bush's staff earlier in the day, and did not surprise. Inclusiveness — "sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and will not allow it" — and, of course, the campaign cornerstone, changing the tone in Washington. Bush adopted that new tone today.

"Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment," Bush 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." He mentioned the word civil or civility half-a-dozen times; and he'll have his work cut out for him in trying to achieve it.

And then, in a rush, the policy initiatives came rolling.

"Together, we will reclaim America's schools, before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives," Bush said. "We will reform Social Security and Medicare, sparing our children from struggles we have the power to prevent. And we will reduce taxes, to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans. We will build our defenses beyond challenge" — that would be SDI — "lest weakness invite challenge." And those faith-based organizations? "They will have an honored place in our plans and laws," Bush declared. "Compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government."

These were the words of man who follows an extraordinarily large-looming president in Bill Clinton and seems determined to enter this Oval Office somewhat smaller and more modestly. The pundits and papers are likely to seize on those mentions of "personal responsibility" as a Clinton kiss-off, but from Bush they also sound like a vision — a vision of a nation led lightly and widely, of a presidency by consensus from a president who never really won his.

Bush is a delegator, and proudly calls himself such, and the humble profile he set for himself in that first acceptance speech after Gore bowed out was not much enlarged Saturday, however more eloquently he expounded it.

George W. Bush doesn't speak Kennedy, but in this new-millennium time of peace and prosperity Bush worked to stir up a feeling of idealism and even a vague sense of crisis, or at least opportunity — and on Inauguration Day 2001 Americans got a reminder that their assistance in running this nation would be greatly appreciated.

"The most important tasks of democracy are done by everyone. What you do is as important as anything government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort; to defend needed reforms against easy attacks; to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor."

That's closer to JFK than Clinton ever came.

"I ask you to be citizens. Citizens, not spectators. Citizens, not subjects. Responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character."

And then Bush, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, bade the transfer of power farewell and took his place in the American timeline.

"This work continues. The story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm. God bless you all, and God bless America."