The elephant on the dais

President Bush did nothing to address the rancor that surrounded his Inauguration.

Published January 24, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Ever since George Washington delivered an inaugural address so inspiring that even his embittered rival John Adams was moved to tears, presidential Inaugurations have traditionally been a ceremonial coming together of the victors and the vanquished -- a bury-the-hatchet celebration of democracy, infused with the idea that what unites us is far more important than what divides us.

Not this time. Even amid all the pageantry, the rancor was hard to hide, though the police and Secret Service did their best. It wasn't just the demonstrations, the largest since the antiwar protests at Richard Nixon's second Inauguration; the endless rows of empty seats at the ceremony, which made one wonder if it was only the rain that dampened the enthusiasm; or the absence of many members of the Congressional Black Caucus from the dais. It was the bubbling bitterness of every Democrat I talked to. Nancy Pelosi, a seven-term congresswoman from California, summed it up: "Any politician is used to dealing with defeat or victory, but this is neither -- and it is different."

And though the Republican revelers I encountered could dismiss the acrimony, they couldn't deny it. "This feels different," Rep. Ben Gilman, R-N.Y., who was attending his eighth Inauguration, told me. "There is a lot of anger that hasn't been resolved."

Apparently, overcoming even a crushing defeat -- like in 1984 -- is one thing, but overcoming victory in the popular vote, the assumption of victory in the Florida recount, and the constitutional contortions of the Supreme Court is quite another.

So how did President George W. Bush deal with this elephant on the dais? He didn't. But he could have. There was a simple way for the new president to acknowledge the rancor without undermining the solemnity of the moment: by articulating a passionate commitment to swiftly enact voting reforms that would ensure that discarded votes -- not just in Florida but across the nation -- will no longer be a routinely tolerated reality of the electoral process.

Affirming "a new commitment" to "civility," as Bush did in his speech, is fatuous without addressing the legitimate concerns that will inevitably get in the way of any attempts at civility. He either didn't listen to his own speech -- or didn't believe it. "I ask you to be citizens," the new president said. "When this spirit of citizenship is missing, no government program can replace it." But nothing can erode the spirit of citizenship faster than the conviction that your vote may not count.

Restoring that trust, especially in the African-American community, has to be one of the president's highest priorities. "Sometimes our differences run so deep," he said, "it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this and will not allow it." But the truth is he is implicitly accepting it when, after receiving only 8 percent of the African-American vote, he says nothing in his first major speech to address that constituency's sense of disenfranchisement.

For a moment, it looked as though he might, when he raised the issue of "the proliferation of prisons" -- not exactly a staple of inaugural addresses but a staple of the other America's sense of injustice. "The proliferation of prisons," he said, "however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls." What does that mean, other than a display of profound confusion between the public and the private realms? If we are ever going to address the doubling of our prison population over the last 10 years, we'll have to grapple not just with theology but with public policy.

In his second Inaugural address, Bill Clinton asked: "Will we all come together or come apart?" As if in answer, Bush vowed to "work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity."

But by far the loudest applause he received came when he promised to "reduce taxes." The second loudest was when he promised to "build our defense beyond challenge." So how will Bush reconcile these promises with his pledge to make "Americans in need ... not problems but priorities"?

One of the greatest obstacles, of course, to building a single nation is the way big money dominates our politics. Given that, the worst omen of the swearing in was that the man opening, closing and presiding over the proceedings, the man whose signature was on every ticket to the ceremony, was Sen. Mitch McConnell -- the human roadblock to campaign finance reform.

The president can wax poetic all he wants about angels riding in the whirlwind and directing the storm and about not passing to the other side of the street when we "see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho." But if he and the rest of the political establishment spend so much of their time in pursuit of campaign cash, where and when are they even going to see that wounded man? On the road to a $10,000-a-plate dinner?

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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