Bush's task: Heal the nation in 12 minutes

When George W. Bush rises tomorrow to repeat the presidential oath and give his inaugural speech, he'll look out to a crowd and a nation that borders on ambivalence toward his presidency. Yet he'll be able to draw on the power and tradition of the moment - on the ceremony's quadrennial sense of national renewal and the aspirations toward hope and healing that so often accompany it.

The outlines of Mr. Bush's stylistic imprint on this hallowed moment are already clear. His expected 10- to-12-minute speech will be shorter than most. Brevity is a hallmark. His trademark themes of unity and harmony will dominate. Family is also key. A picture of the Bush clan will be taken just before the event.

He, like so many presidents before, will labor to employ the symbolic power of the occasion to transform, uplift, unite, and define. How well he succeeds depends on his crafting and delivery of the words and symbols of the moment. Some presidents have fallen flat during their first inaugural minutes. Many have soared.

"The beauty of the inaugural is that we've built up a huge tradition where this is the legitimizing of the president," says Craig Smith, a speechwriter for Presidents Ford and Bush. "This is one occasion where you can go way up on the eloquence scale."

Indeed some of the nation's less-articulate presidents have shown rhetorical sparkle during their inaugural addresses. "President Nixon's most eloquent stuff was in his first inaugural," says Mr. Smith.

Nixon faced a crowd laced with antiwar protesters - and addressed them directly. "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another - until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard, as well as our voices," he said.

"To lower our voices would be a simple thing." And he pledged inclusion. "Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in. Those left behind, we will help to catch up."

Bush, too, will have protesters - many still stewing over surprise court rulings and dangling chads. Security will be at its tightest ever for an inauguration.

In his quest to promote unity, some phrases from history are waymarkers for Bush - and are the standards his words will be measured against.

There's the famous line from President Lincoln's second inaugural in 1865 at the Civil War's end: "With malice towards none, with charity for all, let us strive to ... bind up the nation's wounds...."

Or there are Thomas Jefferson's words about the two rival parties of the day: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

Whether words alone can mend a national fissure is disputed. "The first thing a speechwriter learns is saying something doesn't make it so," says Theodore Sorensen, President Kennedy's speechwriter.

He cautions that Bush's actions - on appointments and legislative initiatives - have yet to signal his willingness to compromise.

And yet, he says, the beauty of the inauguration is that "even those who are most skeptical will listen for a moment." So, he adds, "if Bush truly reaches out to the people he has frightened or alienated, they would be willing to hear."

Bush also has to confront the perception that he's inexperienced - something he has in common with Kennedy. Sorensen recalls Kennedy tackling this notion by defining the nation's robust stance on defending the world from Communism. "I do not shrink from this responsibility," Kennedy declared, "I welcome it."

Of course, there's the danger of sounding too confident, too sunny. In 1857, James Buchanan cheerily declared that slavery was no longer a divisive national issue. The Civil War started four years later.

And, more basically, there's the danger of awkward metaphors. Nixon strangely declared, "The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep."

Meanwhile, there are the other symbols of the weekend and first days in office that send powerful early messages.

Some Democrats say the inauguration is shaping up too much like a victory lap, given the closeness of the win. Yet the new team has toned down the celebration a bit.

Laura Bush is eschewing the traditional celebration of the new first lady, instead hosting an event honoring America's authors.

Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, likewise, is shifting the focus away from himself, and onto veterans.

Bush himself is changing things, too, and signaling that his penchant for brevity extends to receiving lines. His Sunday "open house" at the White House - when the public can meet their new president - is scheduled to last just one hour. In 1993, President Clinton, by contrast, greeted the public for most of the morning, shaking some 2,500 hands.

Yet traditionalism is a key part of Bush's style. Mrs. Bush, for instance, won't have a West Wing office, as did her predecessor.

As for the address itself, Smith has these words of advice for Mr. Bush: "Slow down, speak softly, and let the words carry you," he says, because, "the inaugural address is where you can go off the charts."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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