Hoping for a little humility

Nearly 90 percent of Mormons voted to reelect Bush, but for some, enthusiasm about his second inauguration is tinged with worry.

By Julian Borger

Published January 19, 2005 1:34PM (EST)

George W. Bush never campaigned in Utah. He did not need to. Without showing up, he won 71 percent of the vote here in November, the biggest majority in any state. This is the land of the faithful in more ways than one. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominates public and private life from its multi-steepled white stone temple in Salt Lake City, and its influence is spreading wider with every passing year.

The Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, believe that America was first peopled by a lost tribe of Israelites and then visited by Jesus. Now they have shrugged off their polygamous past and represent the country's fastest-growing religion with more than 4 million members. Their church is bigger than some of the "mainstream" Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

In President Bush's America, the Mormons are the mainstream, and nearly 90 percent of them voted to reelect him.

When Frank Pignanelli, a Salt Lake City Democrat, wrote a newspaper column before the election endorsing Democratic Sen. John Kerry, his e-mail in box filled with fire and brimstone. "You Democrats are the tools of Satan and are corrupting our families and children," he was told in one e-mail.

When Bush delivers his second inaugural address Thursday, it will have no more receptive audience than Utahans. And yet even here, in the very heart of the heartland, there is unease mingled with excitement at the thought of four more years of Bush's administration. Asked about their decision to reelect the president, a lot of Utah Mormons, like Christian conservatives in general, will say they knew in their gut he was a man of God, on whom they could rely.

But when it comes to policies, many of them are queasy. "I voted for Bush. I thought Kerry was dishonest. He was evil almost," said Julie Smith, out shopping in the prosperous and devout town of Bountiful, just outside Salt Lake City. "I like Bush because he's a good man and I think he's got wonderful ideas, but I don't think it's worked out the way he thought it would."

Smith, a retired teacher, has particular distaste for the president's flagship education policy, but she is also unnerved by the downward spiral of events in Iraq -- particularly as it affects the local boys from the Utah National Guard. "I like the idealism but I don't like what's happening. But at least he'll try," she said hopefully of the president's second term.

As he takes the lectern on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Bush will be facing a skeptical nation. His popularity has not enjoyed the victor's customary post-election bounce; his ratings have stagnated at around 50 percent. No two-term president since the Second World War has approached his second inauguration with less backing.

And history is not on his side. No president since Lincoln has delivered a memorable second inaugural address. Such speeches tend toward the overlong and dull, resembling policy shopping lists with little of the euphoric energy seen the first time around. Bush is expected to tell Americans how he plans to extricate the U.S. from Iraq while continuing to cut taxes at home and reform the country's huge pension system.

But more than any second-term president before him, he is expected to inspire an unsettled nation. "America needs to hear that it's going to be OK. George Bush needs to portray a certain sense of confidence in our country's future, both economic and with respect to security," said Beck Mayberry, a 40-year-old energy trader who lives in the district of Centerville, at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

Mayberry is a lifelong Mormon and calls himself a "libertarian." He moved to Utah from Arizona five years ago and found the best of both worlds -- a good income from his job selling options on oil and gas, and a peaceful place to raise five children amid the breathtaking beauty of the American West. He spends much of his free time riding his horse, Ninja, "into the mountains and as far as the eye can see." He attributes at least some of his outlook on life to the fact that he was born on the old frontier.

"There's a certain free spirit to the people in the West," he said, brushing Ninja's sweat-matted coat. "The less government the better. I just need a government that will defend my freedom and my rights. The mandate for President Bush is more of the same -- constant vigilance against the people who attacked us. He stood up and fought them." Like Smith, Mayberry welcomes the fact that Bush "professes his faith openly." He says he appreciates the Bush tax cuts, which he says give the people rather than the government the final say on how individuals' hard-earned money is spent.

He is enthusiastic about the partial privatization of the U.S. federal pension scheme, which is likely to be a centerpiece in the inaugural address and in the second-term agenda. But as Mayberry talks about the future, it is clear that his enthusiasm is tinged with worry. The tax cuts and pension reform will cost trillions of dollars, and the Bush administration has already run up a record deficit. For Mayberry, and for a majority of Americans, fixing the deficit should come first. "I understand international economics just enough for it to scare the hell out of me," he said. "My priority right now is eliminate the deficit before eliminating tax -- before the compounding effect gets us all."

He admits that he was unnerved by the U.S. failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite the confident assurances of the administration. "That was disturbing. I expect integrity on that level. Either our administration lied to us, or someone lied to them," he said. He is prepared to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, but it bothers him that the president has shown so little concern over the deficit and the shaky justification for going to war.

Bush told the Washington Post this week that he thought the election represented a national endorsement of his Iraq policy and felt there was no need for anyone in the administration who promoted the invasion to be held accountable.

Thursday Mayberry would like to hear a little less certainty and a little more readiness to listen. "It's both a blessing and a curse that Bush has such conviction and willpower. He's almost arrogant with this position of his -- 'I've made a decision and I'm going to stick with it.' George Bush needs to be a little bit more humble and a little bit more aware."

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

MORE FROM Julian Borger

Related Topics ------------------------------------------