Bush's promising start, Clinton's sorry exit

Let's consider the coming of George W. Bush and the going of Bill Clinton.

The new president. He's off to a good start with a speech that set just the right tone, calling for unity and civility. It was not a speech that will ring down the ages, like that of Lincoln's, nor one that will be forever quoted, like Kennedy's. But critics are saying it was one of the best of its kind. I noted Mr. Bush's particularly gracious comments to Mr. Clinton and Al Gore, sitting close by on the podium. He obviously was saying, "Let's bury the hatchet."

It was, indeed, an auspicious beginning. And now, in the last week, Bush has shown how actively he will pursue his goals. He's met with 90 members of Congress (61 Republicans and 29 Democrats) and 17 governors (10 Republicans and seven Democrats).

Last Friday, two Republican pollsters, Whit Ayres and Neil Newhouse, told Monitor breakfasters that the new president's approval rating has soared to 65 percent. That's pretty good for a president who was out-voted by his opponent.

Low expectations for Bush's presidency may well be working in his favor: He can look good if he can bring about modest accomplishments.

But Bush needs to make his mark early if he is to make a mark of achievement. The first 100 days will be important. He needs to get his education and tax-cut initiatives through Congress (here, Alan Greenspan has given Bush's tax plan a big boost). And he must not let division erupt in his own Republican ranks. That means keeping Sen. John McCain satisfied that campaign-finance reform will be a priority.

Bush's speech was meant to convey a message of friendship and conciliation to those millions of voters who feel that Mr. Gore, with his popular-vote victory nationally and with what they see as his "real" win in Florida, should be in the White House today.

Did Bush's words help heal the breach? It's hard to tell. I know of those who simply refused to watch the inaugural on TV. And I have no doubt but that this silent protest was a common occurrence all around the US.

I'm reminded of 1960, when millions of Americans couldn't accept John F. Kennedy as their president because he was Roman Catholic. They, too, expressed this feeling by boycotting the inaugural by not watching it on TV. Kennedy, incidentally, soon softened this opposition. That bright, personable president quickly began to rack up high approval ratings for his performance in office.

So Bush might be able to win over those who still don't accept him. But it won't be easy. African-Americans, particularly, will be slow to accept him as their president. Their president will remain Bill Clinton. They love Bill Clinton - much as their parents or grandparents loved Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy.

The former president. Bill Clinton did not leave quietly. Indeed, Clinton spoke at airport rallies in Washington and New York that seemed meant to compete with the Bush inaugural.

No, Clinton didn't courteously step aside and let Bush have the stage. He made farewell speeches, first in Arkansas and then to the nation. Then, the day before leaving office, he owned up to what we already knew: that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" in his deposition in the Paula Jones case in violation of a judge's orders and that, by doing so, "he engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice."

He also conceded that "I tried to walk a line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false."

The Washington Post says Clinton's statement - an admission he is making to escape a possible indictment - is "artfully worded" and "stops well short of the whole truth.... Moreover, these limited admissions appear to reflect not a sudden desire to do the right thing but rather another calculation of self-interest."

That fully echoes my point of view.

Then there was that $190,000 worth of household goods, collected from friends, that the Clintons took with them when they left the White House. And, finally, there were those unpardonable last-minute pardons that Clinton gave out. A sorry exit if there ever was one.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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