WORLD

A CELEBRATION OF POWER

GEORGE BUSH ASSUMES THE PRESIDENCY IN LAVISH STYLE WITH A CALL TO PUBLIC SERVICE

MARCI McDONALD January 30 1989
WORLD

A CELEBRATION OF POWER

GEORGE BUSH ASSUMES THE PRESIDENCY IN LAVISH STYLE WITH A CALL TO PUBLIC SERVICE

MARCI McDONALD January 30 1989

Only minutes earlier, he had placed his left hand on a Bible once used by George Washington and taken his oath of office as the 41st president of the United States. But when he heard a voice call out "Mr. President" as he left the inaugural stage, George Bush automatically turned to the figure in whose shadow he had served for eight years-Ronald Reagan. "I looked around, waiting for Mr. Reagan to reply," he said. Then, behind him, Bush felt what he described as "something between an affectionate hug and a punch in the kidney" from his wife, Barbara, whom he publicly nicknamed "the Silver Fox" last week. Said Bush: "It was the Silver Fox saying, `Let's get going.' " With that prod—and that characteristic self-deprecating story—the man who had begun his quest for the presidency 12 years ago finally realized that he had reached his destination.

It was the friendliest transfer of power in recent American history. All week, Bush had stressed continuity, paying lavish tribute to his predecessor as “my teacher here, my friend.” And from the steps of the Capitol, as he waved off Reagan and his wife, Nancy, in a military helicopter—the first leg of their flight back to private life in Los Angeles and their ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif.—he said that he fought “to keep the tears from flooding down my cheeks.” But in the rhetoric and symbolism Bush chose to mark the opening hours of his presidency, he quickly made clear that the Reagan era, with its scripted Hollywood pomp and stark ideological battle lines, had come to an end. With a deft mix of homey metaphors and a lofty moral call to arms, Bush appealed for a new era of conciliation—across economic and party lines and throughout a nation still rent by the bitter memories of the Vietnam War. Turning to the Democratic leaders of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps with him—and on whom the goals of his presidency now depend—Bush declared, “This is the age of the offered hand.”

Bush’s plain, navy-blue business suit contrasted sharply with the formal morning coat Reagan had donned eight years ago. And he played down his patrician origins by borrowing a page from former president Jimmy Carter—three times jumping out of his new $600,000 armored Lincoln limousine to stride part of the inaugural parade route on foot. Then, he threw open the doors of the White House to the public for three hours the next morning. But, despite those symbols of a more egalitarian and accessible presidency, Bush’s upper-crust Yankee roots found starkest expression in his moving rallying cry for public service and a more ennobling set of national values. “My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions,” he said. “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.”

For some watching the most expensive inauguration in history—a glittering, five-day, $30-million extravaganza that flooded Washington with fur coats, Texan ten-gallon hats and limousines—Bush’s words held a cruel irony. Hundreds of Washington’s homeless—many of them forced out of their makeshift shelters in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, to make way for the parade-route viewing stands—staged a protest against such a lavish display of wealth at a time when the gap between rich and poor is greater than ever in the country’s history. As Republicans sat down to a $l,800-a-plate black-tie dinner of crab pâté and veal inside Union Station, the Counter Inaugural Coalition for a People’s Agenda set up a candle-lit soup kitchen outside, serving chili to the city’s homeless. In fact, many elements of Bush’s speech, including his only specific pledge—a vow to end the “scourge” of drugs—appeared to be a direct response to embarrassing television coverage last week. Within blocks of the White House, the networks had graphically shown some of the nation’s worst poverty and drug-war violence, which last year made Washington the country’s homicide capital with 372 murders.

Still, Bush’s proposed solution was not federal action but a national ground swell of volunteerism—“a new engagement in the lives of others.” He had already sounded that theme of social responsibility at last summer’s Republican convention, terming America’s volunteer communities “a thousand points of light.” And he kicked off the opening of the inaugural festivities last Wednesday with a ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial intended to depict that concept. Organizers had distributed 40,000 tiny commemorative flashlights to the crowd gathered along the capital’s historic mall. And as dusk fell over the majestic marble statue of Abraham Lincoln, Bush urged: “Where there is darkness, let us work together to bring light to all of God’s children. Get those flashlights ready.” Then, as spectators flipped on the 40,000 penlights and Bush lit a giant torch onstage, the night sky exploded in a massive burst of fireworks.

Still, as Bush made clear in his inaugural address, his notion of a national volunteer corps is not purely philosophical. It was also born out of necessity: the projected $185-billion budget deficit. Said Bush: “We have more will than wallet.” Underlining that sobering reality, the government last week released a report showing that November’s trade deficit rose by 22 per cent to $15 billion, the highest in five months. Despite White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater’s assertion that the figures represented “an aberration,” some financial analysts warned of a recession later this year.

In fact, as the inauguration’s balmy opening weather gave way to overcast skies and plunging temperatures, Bush’s invocation of the deficit served as a stark reminder of the hurdles his administration faces. One hint came when the Senate governmental affairs committee last week pelted Bush’s new budget director, Richard Darman, with questions about the sincerity of his boss’s defiant vow at the Republican convention: “Read my lips—no new taxes.” And a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll reported that 71 per cent of Americans doubt that Bush can keep his promise.

Still, congressional Democrats defied post-election predictions that they would punish Bush for his sharp-elbowed campaign rhetoric and liberal-bashing during last fall’s campaign. Instead, they seemed to be indulging him in an amiable honeymoon. The Senate agreed to open confirmation hearings for Secretary of State James Baker, the man who had orchestrated Bush’s fall offensive, even before the inauguration. And signalling the new mood of forgiveness, Baker was escorted to the foreign relations committee witness stand by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate who had most bitterly lambasted his tactics. Said a conciliatory Bentsen: “Our national interests will be strongly protected if Jim Baker is secretary of state.”

In fact, Baker had used some of the same tactics he employed during the election to charm the committee: he had left nothing to chance. Not only had he cased the hearing room in advance, but he had spent an average of two hours privately wooing each of the 19 committee members. As a result, the committee did not quarrel with Baker’s refusal to spell out Bush’s foreign policy in detail. Nor did conservatives question the fact that Bush’s team carries the imprint of their onetime nemesis, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Both National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger have served as top executives of Kissinger’s international consulting firm. And one indication of his resuscitated influence came last week as he met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

Even the Soviets themselves seemed eager to show Bush their geniality: on the final day of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Vienna, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced that the Kremlin will dismantle some short-range nuclear missiles and artillery pieces as part of its plan to scale down its military presence in Central Europe. But the first headlines indicating Bush’s foreign policy may very well be generated not by Baker, but by Vice-President Dan Quayle. After virtually ignoring Quayle ever since the election, Bush is sending him on a tour of Venezuela, Guatemala and Mexico at the end of this week.

But the real star to emerge from last week’s festivities was Barbara Bush, who promises to become the country’s newest folk heroine. More than 6,000 admirers clamored to pay $78 for a glimpse of the no-frills 63-year-old First Lady, forcing the organizers of the Kennedy Centre reception in her honor to book two extra concert halls. And she brought all three houses down with a send-up of her own lack of glamor. “Please notice the hair, the makeup, the designer clothes,” she said, executing a pirouette onstage in her blue Bill Blass suit. “I want you to watch me all week—and remember. You may never see it again.” She has acknowledged receiving sacks of mail from women who identify with her grandmotherly girth, white hair and wrinkles. In a TV interview late last week, she also showed that her wit could outstrip her husband’s. In one of his characteristic verbal misadventures, Bush attempted to defend his wife’s fan mail, telling her, “They’re not talking about whether you’re a blimp or not.” That breach of marital diplomacy provoked an “Uh-oh” from interviewer Barbara Walters. Predicted Bush’s third son, Neil, a Colorado oil investor: “I think you’re going to see some pretty interesting things out of my mother as First Lady.”

Nothing illustrated the breezy new family style the Bushes are ushering into the White House better than their move itself. As he delivered his inaugural address to the nation, a crew stripped the Reagans’ photographs off the walls and carried in the Bushes’ furniture—including a dozen folding camp cots for the 20 children and grandchildren who were sharing their first night at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Toddlers littered the inaugural festivities—and the presidential lap. They stole the show from their “Gampy” at the opening ceremonies as they danced to the music of the Beach Boys, and even commanded their own special inaugural lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets on Capitol Hill. And as Bush arrived on his official stand to review the inaugural parade, the nation looked on as the new president first found himself presented with several newly acquired toys to admire.

In those slice-of-life moments, Bush displayed the natural spontaneity that he had hidden during his vice-presidential years—and he vows to carry on in his bid for a normal life in the White House. Already last week, his penchant for outings to Chinese restaurants and a surprise drop-in on a students’ forum were taxing the nerves of his secret service detail. And to some analysts, his unpredictability only added to the questions that linger over what shape the Bush era will ultimately take. Whatever it is, Bush gave them fair warning that the curtain had come down on the showy theatrics of the past eight years, during which a cowboy actor led the nation. “Some see leadership as high drama, and the sound of trumpets calling,” he said. “But I see history as a book with many pages.” Still, until his Feb. 9 address to a joint session of Congress, an expectant nation must await the actual unfolding of the plot.