Houston — It's a time for healing political wounds. That is the message from President-elect George Bush and his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis.
Now back in Washington residence after a grueling - and some say quite negative - campaign, Mr. Bush may find that a greater challenge is still ahead of him.
In keeping with the split-second response time of his campaign operation, Bush moved quickly yesterday morning in his first press conference as President-elect to convey a calm sense of stability and control after a jostling and sometimes uncomfortable ride to the White House.
He announced his intention to appoint campaign chairman and longtime friend James Baker III to his Cabinet as secretary of state, and he named two close associates to head his transition team.
Craig Fuller, who has served as the vice-president's chief of staff in the White House, will co-chair the transition team with Robert Teeter, a senior Bush campaign adviser.
Mr. Fuller says Bush's staff will take a needed break and then get the transition operation going in a little over a week. He sees a lot of turnover in political appointees despite the continuity of Republican administrations.
``Any president-elect, including one of the same party [as the outgoing president], has a responsibility to bring in new people, to energize the government with new appointees at all levels,'' Mr. Fuller says. ``I think there will probably be quite a few new faces.''
Bush said in his press conference yesterday that his intention to make substantial changes in the political appointments available to him should not be interpreted as ``a lack of confidence in the people who have served Ronald Reagan so well.''
The tone of the campaign, along with Democratic gains in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, has led some lawmakers and political analysts to predict a tough road for the new president. They ask if Bush will have a sufficient mandate to carry out his policies.
Interviews with senior Bush staff after the victory was announced show a different outlook on the post-election mood.
``It was a rough campaign,'' says Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager. ``His job now as President [-elect] is to unite the people in this country.''
``George Bush will do very well,'' predicts James Lake, a senior communications adviser to Bush. ``He will be building on a great foundation and the percentage of victory, along with his vision for what he wants to do with that, is going to stand him very well.'' Mr. Lake says the 54 percent-to-46 percent split in the popular vote gives Bush the fourth-greatest mandate in the last half century, behind Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and President Reagan.
Another senior staff aide says that between the election and the inauguration, the public will take another look at Bush - looking at him as the next President.
It's like a campaign, the aide says, but there is no opponent. New faces are appointed to high office, new themes are struck, press accounts aren't as negative. This, too, will help heal the wounds and bolster the new president's mandate.
``Nobody is going to [remember], come Dec. 1, how many states Bush has carried,'' this aide comments, ``but they are going to know a lot more about the guy, a lot more.''
``I don't think it will take long,'' says Charles Black, a senior Bush adviser. ``The message he sends to Congress and the programs he sends up in January and February will determine a lot.
``George Bush is a very gracious and magnanimous man,'' Mr. Black continues. ``I think the American people will rally behind him.''
Some Democrats have intimated that a Democratic-controlled Congress will have little incentive to work with the Bush White House. The word ``revenge'' is already creeping into some political discussions.
``That never happens,'' says Black. ``That was all the talk about what they were going to do with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Six months later a bunch of Democrats were voting for his tax cuts and his defense increases.''
Black says Bush will be making overtures to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and will be personally involved in his legislative agenda.
``The American people, in voting for me, voted for certain things,'' Bush said during yesterday's press conference. ``Congress understands that. ``I don't think they will do everything my way, but I will try very hard.''
Former Sen. John Tower, considered a possible Bush pick to head the Defense Department, agrees with Black. ``These are mature men,'' he says of congressional leaders. ``They know a lot of things are said in the heat of the campaign. When they see that the American people have given such a strong mandate to Bush, they won't throw obstacles at every turn. The mandate is determined by the size of the victory. It makes it a clear mandate.''
Apparently Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate, sees it differently, however. In an interview Tuesday night, he predicted that a firmly Democratic House and Senate are ``going to spell trouble from Day 1 for George Bush.''
Mr. Atwater echoed the conciliatory theme, saying that Bush plans to work with, not against, Congress. ``I am firmly convinced that Congress ... is full, by and large, of good, well-meaning people who are going to try and work with the president so long as the president tries to work with them. Things are going to be fine,'' he predicts.
The acrimony between candidates is already diminishing. Dukakis has pledged to work with the President-elect, and Bush offered warm compliments to his former adversary after the election results were clear.
``To our opponents, I offer my congratulations for a hard-fought campaign,'' Bush said. ``Both the governor and Senator Bentsen have given a major portion of their lives to public service, and I have the greatest respect for that commitment. ... I have never had any doubt that we shared a common interest in building a better America.''
In his victory speech, Bush held out an olive branch. ``A campaign is a disagreement, and disagreements divide. But an election is a decision. And decisions clear the way for harmony and peace,'' he said.
``I mean to be a President to all of the people. ... To those who supported me, I will try to be worthy of your trust, and to those who did not, I will try to earn it. My hand is out to you and I want to be your President, too.''