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Analysis : Bush Speech: Time to ‘Talk as Neighbors’

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Times Political Writer

“A President is neither prince nor Pope,” George Bush told his fellow citizens Friday in his first public utterance as President.

Indeed, discarding traditional high-flown rhetoric along with his topcoat, Bush made clear on this bright and blustery day that his view of his new job was far from grandiose or imperious. Instead, with the sun on his face and the wind in his hair, Bush presented himself as your basic plain-spoken, good-intentioned, friendly neighborhood chief executive. One with a patrician sense of duty and bent toward good works.

Every inaugural address has its own objectives, shaped by the man and the times. In Bush’s case, his main goal was to begin defining himself as a political personality and leader. In the process, he sought to accomplish another significant purpose: to create a national mood of reconciliation after the polarizing controversies of the Reagan era.

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“We meet on democracy’s front porch,” said Bush, putting a homey perspective on the marbled splendor of the Capitol’s historic west front. With tens of millions watching him across around the land, Bush referred to his inauguration as “a good place to talk as neighbors, and as friends.”

And in what was probably the most visually striking passage of his address he turned to Democratic congressional leaders seated at the platform and promised them “the offered hand” of bipartisan cooperation.

“The American people await action,” he asserted. “They didn’t send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan.”

In presenting himself as a generous-spirited leader willing to meet his opponents at least halfway, Bush sought to focus a political image that has remained remarkably hazy for most Americans.

Own Attitudes Were Blurred

Though he has had a long public career--including active involvement in three presidential campaigns--Bush has been the instrument of other men’s convictions in most of his previous jobs, including the vice presidency. The outlines of his own instincts and attitudes have remained blurred.

Bush made an earlier effort to explain himself and his innermost beliefs to his countrymen, in his widely praised “I am that man” address accepting the Republican presidential nomination last summer. But the favorable impression he created was soon blurred and marred by the sound and fury of a notably negative presidential campaign.

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On Friday he sought to regain the pre-campaign focus by returning to what Temple University rhetorician Herbert Simons called “the lofty tone” of his convention acceptance speech. “He was trying to say, ‘I’m not the guy who ran those nasty campaign commercials,’ ” Simons said.

Bush also leaned heavily on what Bryn Mawr’s Marc Ross, a specialist in the political uses of television, called the “moral stuff about generosity, a kind of old-line noblesse oblige.”

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” Bush declared. Then, in an echo of the hope stated in his acceptance speech for “a kinder and gentler nation” he added: “We as a people have such a purpose today.”

“It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

In one particularly self-revealing passage that both typified Bush and helped bolster the harmonious mood he was trying to create, the new President offered the country a lofty version of family values.

“My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions,” he said. “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.”

“George Bush remembers his family,” said Temple’s Simons. “And he is trying to incarnate America in the likeness of his own family.”

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Bush added a touch of steel to the gentle image he sought to convey, much as he had in the acceptance speech when he made his “read my lips” not to raise taxes. This time, mindful of the sensitivity of the defict issue among Democrats who control both houses of Congress, he found another target for his determination besides fiscal policy.

“There are few clear areas in which we as a society must rise up united and express our intolerance,” said Bush in one of his few unsmiling moments. “And the most obvious now is drugs. . . . Take my word for it: This scourge will stop.”

“He wanted to show he can be a tough guy,” said Kathleen Jamieson of the University of Texas, author of “Eloquence in an Electronic Age.” “He translated that into the pledge to crush the drug traffic.”

And Bush reinforced his uncharismatic view of the presidential role with a relatively comfortable assessment of the nation’s domestic condition and a sanguine view of international affairs.

“We live in a peaceful, prosperous time,” he said, “ . . . a proud, free nation, decent and civil.”

Abroad, Bush also found reason to be optimistic. “For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn,” he said. “For in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree.”

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By emphasizing the relative tranquility of the times, Bush made it easier and more natural for himself to fulfill the other major function of the speech--reconciliation.

In broader terms, he tried once and for all to put an end to the divisive anguish of the Vietnam War. “ . . . Friends, that war began in earnest a quarter of a century ago; and, surely, the statute of limitations has been reached . . . the final lesson of Vietnam,” he added “is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory.”

Clearly, Bush’s effort to establish his own personal and political identity required him to separate himself from his predecessor in terms of style and emphasis.

Offered No Anecdotes

And some critics missed the “Great Communicator’s” skill. Bryn Mawr’s Ross found Bush’s effort to raise the nation’s moral consciousness unconvincing because, unlike Reagan, he offered no concrete examples or anecdotes to explain what he meant. “There was almost no personalization, no link to real people,” Ross complained.

And Stephen Hess, now a Brookings Institution senior fellow and a former speech writer to Republican Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, said: “He pushed all the right buttons, but it was not a memorable speech,” a result that Hess attributed to Bush’s studiously low-keyed tone.

But Bush may not care whether his words go down in history books. In his first day on the job, he seemed more concerned with trying to convince voters who last November entrusted him with the nation’s destiny that they made the right choice.

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