- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2001

As George W. Bush's still very young presidency gathers age, his Inaugural Address will merit rereading. At the moment, of course, its main themes of unity and citizenship are easily enough recalled.
Mr. Bush sounded the theme of unity during his campaign ("I'm a uniter, not a divider"), but the bitterness lingering from the protracted battle in Florida doubtless impelled him to emphasize it. "Sometimes our differences run so deep," he said, "it seems we share a continent, but not a country." Mr. Bush immediately followed with, "We do not accept this, and we will not allow it, before making my solemn pledge … to build a single nation of justice and opportunity."
A pledge is what it is something others expect you to keep and this was Mr. Bush's pledge. But consider that Mr. Bush also said, "Our unity, our Union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens." And citizens, meaning everyone: We all should take this pledge, too.
Mr. Bush's Inaugural had no signature lines, but with this first reference to citizens he introduced the theme that soon dominated his address. Indeed, it culminated in a direct request: "I ask you to be citizens. Citizens," he said, "who live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character."
Mr. Bush elaborated each of his four C's. (Alas, he left out another C the Constitution.) Awkwardly, he worked in his main policy goals entitlement reform, tax cuts, rebuilding the military when he turned to courage. But this was hardly a policy speech. Its essential point was that the nation requires citizens of a certain character, people who demonstrate good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness, confront problems together instead of passing them on to future generations, show compassion (by helping that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho), and take personal responsibility for their actions.
Mr. Bush's speech was everything a Bill Clinton speech was not, from its style (sober, plain-spoken, and concise) to its substance. Indeed, it is reported that when Mr. Bush read the sentence, "Our public interest depends on private character," Mr. Clinton, who had fallen asleep (tired no doubt from wrapping up his plea bargain with the Independent Counsel and issuing those last-hour abuse-of-power pardons), snapped awake. On this basic point, of course, Mr. Clinton disagrees. "Judge me by my record," he said while president, "not by what you think of my character."
Mr. Bush, in contrast, has asked to be judged in terms of character, indeed one that is not segregated into private and public halves: "I will live and lead," he said, "by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility, to pursue the public interest with courage, to speak for greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to live it as well."
Clearly, Mr. Bush aims to lead the nation in a certain direction toward moral renewal. His address made plain his belief, held by the American Founders and considered unexceptional until recent decades, that a republic requires and cannot survive without a certain degree of virtue in the people. What degree that should be, no one really knows. But Mr. Bush thinks we need more, and he wants to see whether government can assist in its resupply.
Historically, the sources of virtue have been found apart from government, mainly in religion, a fact Mr. Bush's speech recognized to the annoyance of liberal critics. (One, the novelist Francine Prose, harrumphed to the Los Angeles Times: "God was just all over it.") Mr. Bush emphasized that "church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity," and said "they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws."
This week Mr. Bush will begin to push those plans, which would allow faith-based groups to compete for public funds to provide social services. His plans, if enacted, may or may not help build communities of service and a nation of character, and even if they do, they may not figure importantly in the judgment most Americans make about Mr. Bush's presidency in 2004. The state of the economy or the world, those hardy election in-year perennials, stand to matter more. But in his Inaugural, Mr. Bush showed us where his deepest interests lie, and his efforts on behalf of a more virtuous citizenry promise to be one of the principal stories of his presidency.Terry Eastland's most recent book is "Freedom of Expression in the Supreme Court."


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