'I Will Work to Build A Single Nation': Restoration: With a Solemn Speech, George W. Bush Ends the Age of Clinton. He's Striking the Right Notes, but Still Faces a Divided Nation

By Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, January 29, 2001 | Go to article overview

'I Will Work to Build A Single Nation': Restoration: With a Solemn Speech, George W. Bush Ends the Age of Clinton. He's Striking the Right Notes, but Still Faces a Divided Nation


Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


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. …

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'I Will Work to Build A Single Nation': Restoration: With a Solemn Speech, George W. Bush Ends the Age of Clinton. He's Striking the Right Notes, but Still Faces a Divided Nation
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