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Western Press Review: Bush's Inaugural Address Wins High Marks

Prague, 22 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic focus almost exclusively on Saturday's inauguration of U.S. President George Bush. Bush's address, which emphasized the themes of inclusiveness and compassion, won generally high marks. Commentators variously saw in Bush's words a positive repudiation of the moral lapses of predecessor Bill Clinton, a signal of Bush's intention to reunite the country following his narrow election victory, and a balm to Europeans who fear creeping U.S. isolationism.


The respected U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor says the inaugural address was Bush's chance to put forward what the paper calls his "Four Cs": civility, courage, compassion and character.

The Monitor's editorial says that claiming a mandate based on values -- instead of specific policies -- is an "audacious start" for Mr. Bush. The paper notes that Washington's traditional focus on narrow-interest politics can "chew up" idealists.

But the editorial says that, given Bush's narrow win in November's election, he had no choice: "He must find common ground on values to win over Democratic lawmakers and the majority of Americans who didn't vote for him, especially blacks."

The Monitor notes that Bush hinted at the divisiveness of his election when he warned that the differences among Americans are so deep that "it seems we share a continent, but not a country."

The Monitor calls these "nice words," and then asks rhetorically whether Bush has the political skill to translate his principles into action. The newspaper seems positively inclined: "His humility may be his best leadership quality in an age of political cynicism."


In a separate editorial, the Christian Science Monitor contrasts Bush's speech with another recent major piece of news: former President Bill Clinton's admission that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" to a court that "were prejudicial to the due administration of justice." While this fell short of admitting that Clinton committed perjury, it was sufficient to spare Clinton an indictment by independent prosecutor Robert Ray.

The paper says more than justice was served by this better-late-than-never bargain: "While [Clinton's] most ardent critics would have liked to see him convicted, the deal lets Clinton, President [Bush], and the country avoid the distraction of a dramatic court trial." That, the paper says, would have "wasted more federal resources and forced Mr. Bush to deal with the awkward question of whether to pardon his predecessor."

The Monitor concludes that historians can now be left to judge what it calls "a sad chapter in the American presidency." But it allows Clinton and "the rest of the us" to make a fresh start.


The usually conservative British paper, the Daily Telegraph, also can't resist comparing Bush to his predecessor Clinton. The paper enjoyed Bush's address, calling it a "cunning speech" in that it recasts Bush as a man who can reunite the country, much in the same way that President John Kennedy could recast his party, the Democrats, as the party "best capable of carrying on the Cold War after being accused of softness on communism through much of the late 1940s and 1950s."

Turning to Clinton, the Telegraph's editorial says Bush's speech, filled with references to "character," was as "clear a repudiation of his predecessor as was possible on such an occasion." The paper continues: "Mr. Clinton's failings did much to prompt talk of the downgrading of the post-Cold War presidency and the rise of congressional, state and municipal power."

"Mr. Bush," the paper says, "now has an excellent opportunity to disprove this assertion."


The London-based Financial Times generally praises Bush for stressing civility over contention. In an editorial, "Mr. Bush's Civil Start," the paper says: "President Bush has [given] a clear indication in his inaugural speech that 'compassionate conservatism' has evolved from campaign slogan to presidential mantra."

The paper notes that whether that mix will be more "conservative" than "compassionate" will be revealed over the next four years. But the editorial says the president repeatedly emphasized in his address the importance of "civility" and was self-aware enough to recognize that his own controversial elevation to the highest office had come after a "contest conducted [by his opponent Al Gore] with spirit and ended with grace.'"

The paper notes there are justifiable concerns that the Bush administration will have an "unduly narrow view of national interest," that U.S. policy would tend toward "unilateralism", and that Bush's election would continue to be seen by many as not legitimate.

The editorial also says Saturday's address went some way toward alleviating these concerns. But it says that "Mr. Bush could not hope to calm those concerns in a few lines." The paper ends by warning of coming legislative clashes on the horizons and says the "durability of this early show of bipartisanship depends very much on Mr. Bush."


The German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung also comments favorably on Bush's inaugural address. In an editorial the paper says: "In Europe's capitals, [Bush's] words were greeted by a collective sigh of relief." Its editorial says "Bush and his team are notorious for their 'unilateralism.' [what the paper calls a 'cousin' to isolationism.]"

The paper says Bush's address did not "dispel these concerns, but it did lessen them." It concludes by saying that "with time, Bush will recognize that America has no alternative but to promote free trade, democracy and human rights." These, the paper says, are the what the country's strength is based on.


The New York Times focuses on the team of advisers Bush has selected and ponders whether this group of generally respected Washington heavyweights will be able to pull together to carry out effective foreign policy. Its editorial begins: "As Republicans see it, Bush has assembled a national security 'dream team,' featuring Dick Cheney as vice president, Colin Powell as secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser."

But, the paper continues, using a basketball analogy, "putting superstar players on the court does not always guarantee harmony or success. [Given] the mix of strong personalities and potentially competing policies in the new administration, Bush may have to deal with more friction than he expects."

The paper points to several recent administrations, all of which it says were bedeviled by personality conflicts. It writes: "During the Carter administration, the secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and the national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, often clashed. In the Reagan years, two powerful cabinet members, Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, engaged in the Washington equivalent of trench warfare for five years."

The editorial says one issue in particular that may provoke disagreement is national missile defense. The Times says both Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld agree that "for now Washington should press ahead with research and testing of a missile defense system. But as Powell grapples with the diplomatic consequences, including restive European allies and the prospect of renewed tensions with Russia and China, he may be less eager to construct the system than Rumsfeld."

The paper concludes that only "Bush has the authority to end arguments and to make the decisions that will determine America's role in the world over the next four years, [and] he is likely to find it can be a lonely and anguishing job."

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.