Bush to boomers: A call to grown-ups

Posted: Jan 25, 2001 12:00 AM
By George, he really means it.

That's the overwhelming impression from the first few days of the W. administration. Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising when a president appears determined to use the office of the presidency to accomplish serious things for this nation. Somehow it is, though. Shocking, really.

A few weeks before the inauguration I was sitting with a group of policy wonks, chewing over what it all means. In particular, how can it be that George W. Bush, a man who tried harder than any Republican before to appeal across racial lines, ended up with less of the black vote than Bob Dole? Of course, African-Americans aren't likely to become a major GOP voting bloc any time soon, but still, the successful demonization of someone who seems to most of us a pretty likable and well-meaning guy was puzzling and disheartening. No Republican, we feared, would ever again make such a concerted outreach to African-Americans with so little prospective political payoff.

But in his first few days in office, President Bush has made it clear: Compassionate conservatism wasn't some campaign fig leaf; it was one man's core convictions. It is not mere political rhetoric; it is the new president's governing philosophy -- both the compassionate and the conservative part.

For President Bush, the call for a change in tone in Washington is not mere window dressing. Conservatives who complain he has not allowed beleagured Cabinet candidates to fight back have missed Bush's point: Tit for tat is not a game for grown-ups. "Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment," declared Bush in his inaugural. "It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos."

Civility is an act of faith, a moral declaration that in America our political opponents are not our enemies. Such an attitude may not serve the interests of our great talk-radio, talking-head media machine, which thrives on heroes, villains and holy wars, but it has the advantage of being true. I've met a great many people in politics, some of whom work for causes that I think are dangerous to America. But I have met very few who did not seem to me to be trying hard to get ahold of something they perceived as "the good."

The public response to President Bush's new education plan was encouraging. Uplifting even. The New York Times headline hailed it as "ambitious." Even vocal critics of the voucher proposal nonetheless termed the total package "serious." Bush underlined that the larger point is not vouchers but accountability. "In order for an accountability system to work, there have to be consequences. ... If children are trapped in schools that will not teach and will not change, there have to be different consequences," he said in defending his proposal to reassign federal money from persistently failing school systems to the low-income students within them. You have a better idea? Put it on the table.

"We must show courage in a time of blessing by confronting our problems instead of passing them on," Bush told us in his inaugural. Saving poor children from terrible schools, rescuing the Social Security system from future disaster. If not now, when? If not us, who? "I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort, to defend needed reforms against many attacks, to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbors. I ask you to be citizens. Citizens, not spectators," he said.

For boomers like me, Bush's words had a special resonance. This time, it felt as though a generational torch had been passed. The second baby boomer president in American history was calling on you and me to at long last say farewell to our extended romance with adolescence and take on instead the burden and the glory of adulthood. I, for one, can't wait.