WASHINGTON--With the hindsight of, oh, a week, one can already, and with certainty, contrast our current and just-departed presidencies.
The Bush inaugural was remarkable for its modesty. It was spare, restrained. No grandiloquent singer. No poet (remember Maya Angelou going on about ``the Jew'' and ``the Sioux'' at Clinton's first inaugural?). No grand and sonorous inaugural address.
The address itself was serious, sober, rhetorically subdued, syntactically and intellectually complex. Its themes were republican themes--citizenship, duty, responsibility--with none of the imperial overtones of such great hortatory addresses as John F. Kennedy's.
One hesitates to use the word austere to describe an inaugural that included a sea of cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, and big hair. But even the evening's celebrations showed restraint. The number of balls had declined. The president, saxless, was actually shy about dancing in public. And he and the missus were home by midnight.
George W. Bush's self-effacement is in part, of course, due to the narrowness and odd circumstances of his election victory. But it is also surely part of his character. The inaugural he gave us was stately, stirring, and sober. (A nice little irony for a guy who nearly lost the election because of an ancient DWI.)
Throughout that same day, Bill Clinton, fresh from his perjury plea-bargain and his felonious pardons, seemed intent on highlighting the gulf between the old and new. Most egregious was his extended extemporaneous wallow at Andrews Air Force Base as he departed Washington. It ranks as one of the most extraordinary acts of need and narcissism ever recorded in American politics. For one last time, he just had to have the ruffles and flourishes, the review of the honor guard, the glare of the klieg lights, the well of applause.
After two full terms he seems never to have fathomed that with the office come certain basic requirements of decency and democratic decorum. Such as: This was not his day. He'd had eight years of his days. This was someone else's day. Yet he couldn't help but try to step all over it.
As always, the subject of his speech was Bill: ``I had a very good morning ... I will always feel good about this ... I tried to give as good as I got.'' In a talk of a thousand words, he used I/me 56 times. (Try that at home. It's not easy.)
Has there ever been a more personalized presidency, one more centered on ``I,'' the ups and downs, the comebacks and knockdowns, the wildly gyrating psychic trajectory of one man? Consider his last official act, the pardons. Clinton's exercise of this supreme executive prerogative was screamingly about me: my brother, my business associates, my political appointees, my former partners, my contributors. In short, my needs (as in: I need furniture for the new houses). But then again this is a president who quite arguably twice bombed foreign countries to deflect attention from personal scandal.
``Ladies and gentlemen,'' a less generous successor might have begun his inaugural address, ``our long national psychodrama is over.'' Eight years of it. (Well, nine. It was exactly nine years ago--Super Bowl Sunday 1992--that Bill and Hillary burst upon the American scene with their ``60 Minutes'' Gennifer Flowers interview.)
The interesting question is why the country chose this supreme psychodramatist not once but twice. I have a theory. We had just emerged from 60 years of national emergency: the Depression followed hard by death struggles with successive monstrous tyrannies. From 1933 to 1992, presidents were called upon to do large things. The times called for large men, the best of whom brought glory both to themselves and to their country: FDR, Truman, Ike, Kennedy, Reagan.
The stakes were high, the cause elevated. Then suddenly, it was over. We didn't quite know what to do. George Bush senior didn't. After his magnificent exertion in the Gulf War, he was
adrift during his last year and a half in office.
With no need for glory, the country turned to theater, precisely the kind of theater--self-absorbed, introspective, narcissistic--that fit the age of Oprah. Over his eight years, Clinton produced a novel that makes ``Primary Colors'' look demure, almost naive.
George W. began his first official Oval Office function a few seconds early. Clinton, perennially late, was known for ``Clinton Standard Time.'' To be sure, punctuality is a minor virtue. But when combined with a general modesty, not keeping others waiting shows a simple respect, an acknowledgment that their time is valuable too.
Six decades of glory. One of histrionics. And now, a return to normalcy.