Commentary | Education

Bush’s Inaugural Speech Must Walk the Middle Road

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates. 


Bush’s Inaugural Speech Must Walk the Middle Road

by David Kusnet

The new president was besieged from the moment he took office. A conservative Republican who had won with only a minority of the vote against an unpopular vice president, he was vehemently opposed by much of the nation, especially African Americans. Demonstrators protested at his
swearing-in, and Democrats expected to thwart his initiatives and defeat him for reelection.

So, in his inaugural speech, the new president called for national unity. “We cannot learn from each other until we stop shouting at each other,” he declared. “To go forward at all is to go forward together. This means black and white together, as one nation, not two.”

While the new president’s predicament is timely today–and his rhetoric sounds familiar–these words were spoken by Richard M. Nixon in 1969. His appeal for civility and centrism is likely to be echoed by George W. Bush on Saturday, when, for the first time, he addresses the nation as president.

As every president does in his inaugural address, Bush will present himself as the leader of the entire nation and portray his principles as consistent with time- honored American values. But as with only a few of his predecessors, Bush also will need to reassure much of the nation that his presidency is legitimate and to build support for an agenda that does not command the support of majorities in Congress or the country.

In so doing, Bush will borrow from predecessors who led deeply divided societies, won closely contested or even disputed elections or lacked strong support in Congress, a roster that ranges from Nixon to such revered presidents as Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy. Fortunately for Bush, he’ll be playing a part he has auditioned for in most of his own major speeches over the past year: the role of “a uniter, not a divider.”

Bush also will benefit from the pageantry of the inaugural ceremony, which Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania describes as “a ritual of transition in which the covenant between the citizenry and their leaders is renewed.”

Seeking to heal the wounds caused by bitter campaigns, other presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have explicitly praised their predecessors whom they defeated. In addition to praising predecessors including Clinton and his own father, Bush may thank Vice President Al Gore for his graciousness in conceding a disputed election.

In so doing, Bush will echo another president who lost the popular vote and prevailed only after a controversial decision to award him Florida’s electoral votes. In his inaugural address in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes praised the defeated Democrats for acceding to his election, declaring: “The fact that two great political parties have in this way settled a dispute in regard to which good men differ…is an occasion for general rejoicing.”

Then Bush will reach out to his fellow citizens by espousing racial reconciliation, bipartisan cooperation and a centrist philosophy. Perhaps because African Americans distrust them, recent Republican presidents have called for racial healing. Bush can be expected to return to this theme, perhaps adding that America’s diversity extends beyond black and white, and then become the first newly inaugurated president to speak a sentence or two in Spanish.

Similarly, he will reach out to Democrats, a frequent theme for his father, whose 1989 inaugural proclaimed: “We need compromise….This is the age of the offered hand.” With Gore and Ralph Nader of the Green Party having captured a combined majority of the popular vote, Bush will be in no position to claim an ideological mandate. Thus, there will be no echoes of the liberal Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pledge, in his first inaugural in 1933, to drive the “money-changers” from the “temple of [American] civilization” or of the conservative Reagan’s declaration in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem.”

Instead, Bush will emulate Jefferson, who was selected by the House of Representatives after a tie vote in the electoral college. In his inaugural address in 1801, Jefferson claimed common ground with his adversaries, contending: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

In similar terms to Nixon in 1969 and his own father in 1989, Bush will present his compassionate conservatism as a mind meld of right and left, combining public and private efforts to promote the common good–what Nixon called the “legions of the concerned and committed,” and the elder Bush “a thousand points of light.” Most likely, Bush will offer a vision of a limited but activist government similar to what Clinton articulated in his second inaugural in 1997: “We need a new government for a new century–humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves.”

After pleasantry and philosophy comes the hard part: policy. While inaugurals do not delve into detail, they do present principles that will be used to justify a president’s initiatives. Bush has repeatedly indicated that his major initiatives will include tough-minded education reforms, partial privatization of Social Security and substantial tax cuts that his critics contend are tilted toward the wealthy.

In laying the groundwork for these initiatives, Bush is likely to borrow a strategy from Kennedy, who also won a narrow and disputed election. Delivering his inaugural address in 1961 in the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy concentrated on national security issues that then commanded bipartisan support. Now that education enjoys similar support from Americans concerned with their children’s futures, Bush will emphasize the importance of preparing young people for rigorous competition in the unforgiving global marketplace– the national security issue of the 21st century.

As he seeks to invest his entire agenda with the broad-based backing that education enjoys, Bush will likely use a rhetorical device that he deployed in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last year: casting other issues, from reforming Social Security to building up the military, as matters of generational responsibility for fellow baby boomers who need to prove that they can “grow up before we grow old.” A frequent theme from Bush’s campaign–his call for a “responsibility era”–is likely to be used to argue for everything from a tax cut by a federal government required to make do with fewer revenues to a call on Hollywood and the music industry to cut back on gratuitous sex and violence.

All this may make for a well-received inaugural address by Bush who has said, with characteristic fractured syntax, that he thrives on being “misunderestimated.”

But, as Nixon could tell him, giving a good inaugural speech can be one of the easiest parts of a presidency, as the poetry of the swearing-in ceremony gives way to the prose of governance.

David Kusnet was chief speech writer for President Clinton from 1992-1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, and the author of “Speaking Americ
an: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.”


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