Paul  Kengor

Watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I was impressed by the graciousness and civility by the two presidents at the platform during the transition. To tepid applause, Obama began his Inaugural Address by thanking George W. Bush for his service. As the camera panned to Bush, the 43rd president seemed non-responsive, sad.

After the ceremony, the Obamas and Bushes slowly descended the Capitol steps together, almost arm in arm—two presidents and two first ladies, two couples, four Americans, four people. They chatted quietly, amicably. The Obamas escorted the Bushes to the helicopter. They hugged, shook hands, George Bush gave Michelle Obama a kiss on the cheek. The helicopter flew away.

Graciousness. Civility.

I watched this on MSNBC. It was all so moving that it threw me for a loop when, as the Bush helicopter gradually disappeared from sight, the camera fixed on an Obama supporter carrying a giant sign that read: “BUSH GO TO HELL.” (I’ve since learned that such rude gestures were more common than I had realized, including the crowd chanting at Bush, “na na na na … hey, hey, hey, goodbye. Click here.)

My mind immediately raced back to the inauguration of George W. Bush in January 2000. On that other January day, Bush used his Inaugural Address as an opportunity to call for unity after the terribly divisive 2000 presidential election. “Unity,” he said shortly into his speech, “is within our reach, because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves, Who creates us equal in His image.” He spoke of the need for compassion, character—and civility.

He defined compassion as the work of a nation. He interjected one of his favorite Biblical stories—the account of the Good Samaritan. He made a “pledge” in those first presidential minutes: “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” Though no one could have foreseen it, Bush would later (April 2003) invoke that same parable in explaining to a shocked White House press corps why he was about to take the unprecedented step of spending $15 billion on African AIDS relief in a period of record budget deficits and amid a major war in Iraq—and with tens of billions more yet to follow.