On a day of warmth and sun, of fireworks and flyovers, of lavish dinners, demonstrations for the homeless and 40,000 points of flashlight, George Herbert Walker Bush on Wednesday opened the festivities leading to his inauguration as the 41st President of the United States.
For the next four days and nights, Bush and the senior officials of his Administration-to-be will swirl through a schedule of parties, balls, galas and entertainment that makes up the most expensive inauguration in the nation’s history, costing some $30 million.
But behind all the fun is serious purpose. Bush’s inauguration Friday morning will represent another of the peaceful transfers of American executive power that remain extraordinary in the tyranny-stained tapestry of world history.
“This is a week that’s obviously designed to set the tone for governing,” said White House chief of staff-designee John H. Sununu.
Not surprisingly, the tone Bush worked tenaciously to set in the opening appearances of his celebration mirrored the theme of his successful presidential campaign: continuity with the Reagan Administration, but of a “kinder, gentler” sort.
Bush began the day praising teachers, closed it by attending a reception honoring Americans with handicaps and in between repeatedly praised his sponsor and predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
“I am awed by your work,” he told the teachers. “Disabled people have been excluded too long,” he told the handicapped gathering. “We’re not coming in to correct the errors of the past, we’re coming in to build on a proud record that’s already been established,” he said to the Republican National Committee.
“I am following a great President,” he said later at a ceremony on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. But, he quickly added: “The job is not complete. Some are still hurting, and we care.”
Bush once again cited his favored image of the “thousand points of light,” telling an audience estimated by police at 40,000 that the points stand for “the student who stays after school to tutor a classmate . . . a community leader who raises money to build a day care center for underprivileged children . . . the volunteer who delivers meals to the home of the elderly . . . everyone who pitches in and builds up.”
Then, as members of the audience held aloft thousand-points-of-light penlights that had been distributed as souvenirs, Bush lit an Olympic size torch. “It is the ambition of my presidency,” he said, “to make these thousand points of light shine brighter than ever before. Where today there is darkness, let us work together to bring light to shine on all of God’s children.”
Three Whirlwind Days
For Bush, who deliberately has kept a low profile for several days so that attention will not be diverted from the approaching celebration, Wednesday was the first of three whirlwind days of public appearances that will reach their climax with Friday’s swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address.
For the residents of the capital and the thousands of visitors from around the nation who have jammed hotels and booked virtually every available limousine in the city, it was a day made all the happier by unseasonably warm and sunny weather--a day when people could mingle on the streets, coats off, enjoying the sunshine and the monuments and the moment.
“No matter if you’re a supporter or not it’s exciting,” said Mardy Rausch, of Norfolk, Mass., who had voted for her state’s governor, Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, in November. “It’s history,” she said.
For Mike Hellon, a 46-year-old GOP activist from Tucson, this week’s events were a repeat. “We were here in 1981 for Reagan’s inaugural,” he said. This time, however: “I wanted to show my son. He is old enough to appreciate it now.”
Sarah Elizabeth McFall, 14, and New Hampshire’s 1988 Teen Young Miss, claimed a personal connection to the President-elect. One of the thousands of Americans who have received personal letters over the years from Bush, McFall met him a year ago, when Bush was campaigning in the New Hampshire primary.
At a Concord, N. H., New Year’s Eve party, she said, the candidate and his young supporter exchanged buttons, and a few days later she received a thank you letter from Kennebunkport, Bush’s home in Maine.
After the election, McFall said, she wrote to Bush asking how she could get tickets to the inauguration. A few weeks later, the hotly sought-after items appeared in the mail.
“I was surprised he would remember me after all of the people he’s met,” she said. “I think he’s nice and pleasant.”
Bush received even warmer words earlier in the day when he met with 16 surviving crew members of the Finback, the submarine that rescued him 44 years ago when, as a World War II Navy flier, he was shot down over the Pacific.
One former crew member, retired Rear Adm. Lawrence Heyworth of Virginia Beach, Va., recalled that the crew had nicknamed the future President “Ellie” because of “his outstanding imitation of an elephant trumpeting,” a skill he apparently developed by watching Tarzan movies while aboard ship.
From the reunion, Bush went on to a political celebration at the GOP meeting, which ratified his choice of Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, as the new party chairman. Then, it was on to the Mall, where--as the sun set and the moon rose--the former Navy pilot was saluted by Army parachutists, Marine color guards and 21 Navy jets flying in close formation down the Potomac.
Under the gaze of the great seated statue of Lincoln and the protection of sharpshooters on guard for terrorist threats, Bush played with his grandchildren and chatted with his running mate while some of his favorite entertainers--the Beach Boys, the Gatlin Brothers, patriotic balladeer Lee Greenwood--serenaded the crowd. Ushers handed out the souvenir flashlights and Bush opened his brief speech by quoting Lincoln, the GOP’s first President--words from the Gettysburg Address carved in the marble wall of the memorial:
“ ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people,’ ” Bush said, “is the kind of government I plan to lead.”
Then, as the crowd stayed to watch a huge display of fireworks around the Washington monument, Bush headed off to the reception for the handicapped and a round of $1,500-a-plate black-tie dinners.
It would be late before George and Barbara Bush would return to their own home, a temporary lodging in the government’s official guest residence, Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
Early in the day, the last of the family’s belongings had been moved out of the vice president’s official residence a few miles away to allow workmen to make changes for the house’s future occupants, Dan and Marilyn Quayle. Bush and his wife will stay in Blair House along with 20 children and grandchildren until they move into the White House Friday night.
And moving already has become fodder for Bush’s jokes. “I’m giving her a little elbow room,” Bush said about his wife during one of his speeches. “See a half-filled crate and she puts me to work and she’s mean and tough and ugly about it. She doesn’t show any understanding.
“I don’t care if I see her for another 48 hours because I know there will be another crate, and she (will say) ‘move this one over there.’ Getting tired of that. After all, I got big responsibilities being put on my shoulders,” he joked.
Staff writers Donald Shannon, Melissa Healy, Michael Shear and Brian Coutourier contributed to this story.