Calling on a fresh spirit of national civility, George W. Bush took the oath of office as America’s 43rd president Saturday, a day marked by the triumphs and ironies of American democracy and the reminder of a volatile election.
“Today we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation’s promise through civility, courage, compassion and character,” the 54-year-old Texan told the nation as thick clouds and a pesky winter rain hovered over Washington.
Bush’s speech was viewed both as a critical step in mending post-election scars and a powerful indicator of what the next four years will hold.
“Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation,” Bush said. “And this is my solemn pledge — I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”
The day itself — perhaps the shining example of the political system — displayed the sheer passion of Americans’ ideals. As Bush asserted his national agenda and thousands of well-wishers crowded the West Lawn of the Capitol, equal numbers of protesters gathered at various points throughout the city.
The counterarguments were loud and varied. Some protesters said Bush was selected, not elected, president while others blasted corporate greed.
With the protesters far removed from the swearing-in ceremony, President Bush focused on restoring unity across the nation.
“The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice, and the circumstances of their birth,” he said. “And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country.”
Bush received thunderous applause when he reiterated his goal to reduce taxes — a $460-billion pledge that congressional Democrats consider a tall order. Aside from economic concerns, Bush pledged to “reclaim America’s schools,” to reform Social Security and Medicare, and to strengthen the armed forces “beyond challenge.”
For Sue Brannen, chair of Texas’s Midland County Republican Party, Saturday was an emotional occasion.
“I can now tell my grandchildren they cannot only respect the office of president, they can respect the man himself,” the 63-year-old hometown friend of the Bushes told U-WIRE. “I think he’ll put respect back to the office and he’ll do what he says he will do.”
Sentiments of anger and relief seemed to pervade the inaugural crowd and as former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) arrived on the platform, jeers and boos far outnumbered the applause.
As many people came to welcome in the new president, others came to see the Clintons off.
“Thank God that slime is gone,” Roberta Maffei of Long Island, N.Y., said just after Bush took the oath. “I’m from New York, so we have to put up with him for a while longer.”
Her husband Dennis Maffei said he was ready for a change.
“I think people are tired of things that went on in the last eight years,” he said. “It was a little embarrassing for the country and the citizens and I don’t think we feel that (Bush) will behave in the same way.”
Some younger spectators had less adamant thoughts on the day.
“(Bush) is not who I wanted to be president,” Chris Monroe, an 18-year-old Chicago student said. “At the same time, we still have to come together and try to make things right.”
The protesters, who during the swearing-in found their audience limited, trumpeted their messages as the crowd departed Capital Hill.
Amy Davidow, a professor of Biostatistics at New Jersey Medical School, stood with a group of people calling the election “illegitimate.”
“I think that today is a shameful day,” she said. “The whole inauguration is a complete farce.”
Davidow said her presence was based on the principle that every vote should be counted, regardless of the candidate.
Tram Nguyen, a high school senior from Silver Spring, Md., donned a cowboy outfit while her friend dressed as a prisoner holding an electric chair.
“It seems like this has totally invalidated the procedure of how we’re supposed to carry on politics and elections,” Nguyen said. “It goes against everything our nation stands for and I think it’s wrong.”
Reaching out to disenfranchised voters was a critical aspect of Bush’s speech. Though his address lasted only 10 minutes, the Bush team viewed it as the first and most important way to solidify the presidency and to cast the president into a position of national leadership.
“I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility; to pursue the public interest with courage; to speak for greater justice and compassion; to call for responsibility and try to live it as well,” Bush said as he gazed into the eyes and hearts of Americans. “In all these ways, I will bring the values of our history to the care of our times.”