Saturday in the park with George

You could learn a lot about the new Bush era from Saturday's inaugural. God and Stetsons? Good. Clinton and taxes? Bad.

Published January 20, 2001 11:46PM (EST)

What did we learn of our new president from his inauguration speech and swearing-in ceremony? Perhaps most obviously, he's not going to be much of a talker. At 14 minutes, George W. Bush gave a swift performance, urging Americans to "make our country more just and generous."

But there were other discoveries, too, including:

1. Big-time Bush supporters, the invited friends with seats and the hard-core ones who braved cold, mud and threatening skies to stand outside the Capitol, love their tax cuts. The president's speech was interrupted with cheers loudly, just once, after his simple promise: "We will reduce taxes."

2. Dick Cheney's middle name is "Bruce."

3. Big-time Bush supporters are white. In this crowd, in the center of a city with one of the largest African-American populations in the country, the faces framed with fur muffs and those ubiquitously bland tan Burberry plaid scarves were overwhelmingly white.

4. They don't like Bill Clinton. When the outgoing president made his first appearance entering the Capitol (on big video screens flanking the podium), a smattering of boos echoed across the grounds.

5. The Bush years won't be good for PETA: By the end of the one-hour ceremony, an outstanding number of women in the crowd looked like water-logged cats. There hasn't been this much matted fur in Washington, D.C. since Robin Williams took a sauna at the Four Seasons.

6. We learned about what could be called "cowboy condoms": those thin, plastic bags Texans roll down over their Stetsons when it rains. ("Safe Tex," anyone?)

We also learned that we will be hearing a lot about God in the coming administration, with Bush invoking His existence in his speech (including Biblical references and others to angels) 14 times. And specifically "Jesus" -- not the pantheist's friend "God" or "the Creator" -- made an impressive return. Rev. Franklin Graham (subbing for his ailing father, Rev. Billy Graham) closed his invocation with "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, amen." And Pastor Kirbyjon H. Caldwell closed his benediction with "We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ."

In his two public prayers at past Clinton Inaugurals, Rev. Billy Graham, that grand secularist, didn't mention Jesus' name once, though he did dedicate his 1993 speech to "the One who was called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace." Instead, the elder Graham spoke of "God" and "the Lord," giving only atheists fuel for fire.

Even as Bush invoked Thomas Jefferson, who struggled famously with the limits of religion in a pluralistic society, it was with a reference to God. He quoted a letter written by Revolutionary War figure John Page to the then future president, in which Page remarked, "We know the Race is not to the swift nor the Battle to the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm?"

The "Whirlwind" and the "Storm" that Page referred to was the birth of America, which, on the day he wrote his letter, was just two weeks old. Though Bush's whirlwind and storm could've been taken very literally on the damp and wintry Washington afternoon, he may have also had in mind the stormy days just past -- and just ahead of him -- with four of 10 out of the citizens he now serves still calling his legitimacy as leader into question.

That storm was also alluded to just as Bush finished speaking of how Americans are "bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens," when the faint thunder of a police helicopter monitoring the actions of thousands of protesters in town could be heard from below the sky's dense cloud cover.

Nonetheless, it was a smooth and assured performance by Bush, though his speaking style still seems very much a work in progress. It's still difficult to get a handle on his accent, with its subtle switches from a swaggering Midland ("I solemnly swear" becoming "I sh-olemnly sh-wear") to a clipped Kennebunkport ("spared new horrors" becoming "spared new harruhs") and back.

And if President Clinton's public performances were typified by the enabled speech of a therapist willing to feel our pain, Bush keeps his rhetoric, and his points, simple. "America, at its best, is also courageous," Bush said at one point. "America, at its best, is compassionate," he said at another.

Clinton, however, didn't exactly surrender his turf with the no-nonsense speed that President Bush used to move through his speech. Shortly before the ceremony, he announced his list of those he would pardon (brother Roger, Susan McDougal, Patty Hearst) leaving TV reporters to devote attention to those left un-pardoned (Michael Milken, Leonard Peltier, Webb Hubbell and Jonathan Pollard).

And then, as he prepared to board a plane that would symbolically take the Clintons away from Washington now that their duties are over (even though Hillary Clinton will boomerang right back to her new Embassy Hill manse to serve as New York's junior senator), Clinton gave an unprecedented goodbye speech to hundreds who had turned out, including members of his Cabinet, to bid him farewell. "When you leave the White House, " Clinton said, "you begin to wonder if you'll ever draw a crowd again." Wonder -- or worry?

It was the day after Clinton cut a deal with Independent Counsel Robert Ray, allowing him to generally ride out of town a free man and avoiding an indictment over his possible perjury and obstruction of justice relating to the Monica Lewinsky dust-up with a five-year suspension of his law license. As a final farewell, Clinton said, "I tried to give as good as I got." Then finally, he boarded the plane and flew off.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton Texas