A Return to Civility

President Bush’s inaugural address had a specific weight. Some speeches just float away because they’re light and full of air, but this one had weight and stayed and settled. It was a speech that declared the new president’s thinking as he assumes the presidency. This is what he thinks: God is here and asks us to do good.

The tone was properly ecumenical, but the content was God-filled: “We are guided by a power larger than ourselves, Who created us equal in his image”; “Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love”; “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and laws”; “Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love.”

It was the speech of a compassionate conservative, of one who sees need, and who will neither ignore it nor respond to it with the cold buying-off of constituencies. It was the speech of someone who doesn’t think this is all a game.

That is the deeper meaning. As for the political meaning, it seemed full of shrewd softness. George W. Bush did not speak, as many talking heads including my own had said he would, and as his father 12 years ago had, of bipartisanship. He spoke of civility, by which he meant bipartisanship.

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In using civility, his plea was unimpeachable. Who could disagree with the need for more of it? But by not explicitly lauding bipartisanship, he stayed clear of the murky waters of its meaning and mutuality, not to mention what one-way bipartisanism did to his father’s administration. Now, when the Democrats of Congress assault his motives as he puts forth his program, he can sigh, shake his head, and refer to his high hopes for greater civility. This is so clever I would call it Clintonian, except it isn’t sick.

Also, his speaking so much and so feelingly of God’s place and precedence, his speaking so explicitly of poverty and disadvantage as failures of love, puts the Democrats of Congress in another interesting position. If you don’t give room to faith-based help, and freedom-based assistance to children in trouble in school and on the streets, God and I gonna open up a can of whupass on you.

In terms of the rhetoric and presentation, two things: Mr. Bush in the past has sometimes seemed not as good as his material; it lifted him, he didn’t lift it. But in this speech he lifted it. He gave it not just as a president, but like a president, with gravity and sureness. Gone was the squinting, awkward fellow of the acceptance speech; here was the serene and serious man of the new era.

The overall rhetoric of the speech was somewhat less successful than its content. It was fancy, and quite un-Bush-like in its fanciness. At times, at least for me, it was opaque. I had to read the “Angel on the Whirlwind” twice before I took its meaning, but most of those listening at home and in the Capitol did not have a text. There is a simplicity in the best sense to Mr. Bush’s thoughts. There should be an unlabored simplicity to his expressions.

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Mr. Bush’s eyes filled with tears as he took the oath of office—quite possibly a historical first—and people have discussed why. Family redemption, old losses now avenged. Maybe. But I suspect they were the tears of a 54-year-old man who hadn’t amounted to much in his first 40 years—poor student, average athlete, indifferent businessman, all of this in contrast to his father’s early and easy excellence. He had struggled to find himself and his purpose; amazing and fantastic things had happened, and he had gone on to make himself a president—”Called to do great things.”

I think as he stood with his hand held high he felt deep gratitude, deep love, and a hunger to do right, to actually serve and not only dominate his country. Historians should press him on what those tears meant, and see if he can explain.

There was something portentous to the day. The unrelenting overcast, the gloomy skies, the bone-chilling wet; through the slightly tinted glass of the Fox studios the heavy skies made things look like they were happening in a Martian atmosphere. It was dark early. At 4 p.m., the lights of the limousines shone on the slick blacktop of Pennsylvania Avenue. The inaugural parade was marked by protests. It was as if fate, or God, had decided to tell Mr. Bush one last time: Nothing in this will be easy.

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I spent three days at the inaugural. I cannot say I have never seen conservatives so happy—I saw them in 1980 and 1984. But I have never seen conservatives so warm, so grateful, so unified, like still vital veterans come together not only to tell old stories but to plan new campaigns.

They gathered at many places, but one of the most rollicking was the Embassy of Uzbekistan on Massachusetts Avenue on inauguration night, where hundreds kissed and hugged and showed pictures of the kids. It is nice to see conservatives triumphant, but it is better to see them sweet. At least for a night.

As for the former president, Bill Clinton rejected the option of controversial last minute pardons, saying that they would be construed as cynical. He eschewed his weekly radio address as a courtesy to the incoming president on his inaugural speech day. He and Mrs. Clinton accompanied them to the swearing in, where Mr. Clinton ceded the spotlight to Mr. Bush, sitting quietly, almost contemplatively.

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After the inaugural, he and Mrs. Clinton left the Capitol by a side door with a small detail and arrived at Andrews Air Force base, where they met with a band of supporters, quietly bid them goodbye, waved from the door of a military transport and disappeared into the skies to return to Arkansas.

Oh wait, that didn’t happen. Mr. Clinton forced himself into every picture, did the big-chested big jaw through every photo op, held a political rally at Andrews, actually reviewing the troops with trumpets and flourishes. He then reassured the nation that he was not leaving. Then, having insisted on a huge Air Force One-size plane to impress the rubes of New York, he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport to which he had invited 10,000 supporters for yet another political rally. A thousand came. He called himself Citizen Clinton with his usual false modesty and faux bonhomie. What a disturbed and disgusting individual. What a wonderful thing for our country that he has been replaced as president.

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But let’s not end there. At every inauguration there is a heightened sense of history happening. There is a tenderness. Most everyone feels the heightened sense, which expresses itself in a laughter that you fully understand and a choked-up feeling that you don’t.

We don’t do so much flag-waving in the new America, but suddenly the streets are full of floats with giant American eagles and bucking broncos and men dressed up as Buffalo Bill Cody. I was on the top of the Health and Human Services building early in the morning and in the darkness there were echoes of the music of a band rehearsing, and bright white lights trained on busy little white tents, and cannons being put in place for the salute. Suddenly for me it was Lincoln meeting with his generals in the tents near the Wilderness.

On an inaugural morning there is nervous laughter and banter in the motorcade, in the green room, on the set, in Blair House, in the holding area as the marching chorus waits to be waved into the parade. There are tired eyes that are red-rimmed already at seven in the morning, and the tired sour breath of workers who’ve been up all night—readying the platform, planning the broadcast, lighting the stage, setting the tables.

The morning of the swearing-in, Pope John Paul II sent Mr. Bush a beautiful telegram, which ended with these words: “Upon you and your family and upon the beloved American people I cordially invoke the Lord’s abundant blessings.” When I heard it read aloud—“I . . . ask God, the father of all nations, to guide your efforts”—I thought it was not a telegram but a prayer.

It was the old world talking to the new, the receding world of 1978, the year John Paul was “inaugurated,” to the new world of 2001, the world in which the new president will do his work. Another salute on inauguration day, and it made you want to touch your chest and say, “May it be so.”