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Friday, December 1, 2023

Pomp & Protest

Not everyone gathered in Washington was happy to see the event take place. Thousands of protesters milled around downtown Washington and Capitol Hill during the ceremonies. The most visible demonstrations came from several individuals and small groups seated in the crowd on the west side of the Capitol who unfurled banners and shouted during the speech.

President Bush used his second inaugural as a platform to spread the gospel of freedom throughout the globe, declaring that the only solution to “the reign of hatred and resentment” that plagues the world is the vital American concept of liberty.

In a 21-minute address delivered Thursday after taking the oath of office, Bush described the spread of freedom as “the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time,” directing his message almost as much to the world community as to an American public that elected him to a second four-year term a little more than two months ago.

Bush, 58, the nation’s 43rd president, spoke at length about the link between the universal spread of freedom _ a word he cited 27 times _ and the United States’ own security interests, saying that the nation’s “ultimate goal” is the “ending of tyranny in our world.”

“We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Bush said. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Surprisingly, the president failed to make any direct mention of the war in Iraq, the conditions in Afghanistan or even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the devastating event that has served as the locus of much of his public oratory.

Instead, he said, “my most solemn duty is to protect this nation against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America’s resolve and have found it firm.”

The day of pomp was capped by an evening of parties, with 50,000 people attending nine official presidential balls around the nation’s capital. Among the soirees was the Commander-in-Chief Ball, which honored members of the military and their families. The president and first lady whirled through the parties to the delight of jubilant supporters.

“We’re having the time of our lives,” Bush told the cheering crowd at the Constitution Ball before dancing with the first lady.

Bush took the oath of office _ delivered by a hobbled Chief Justice William Rehnquist in a hoarse but steady voice as he recovers from cancer surgery _ under skies dappled with gray, white and wispy blue. The numbing cold that settled over Washington earlier in the week was gone, supplanted by less frigid but still brisk conditions.

Among those on hand, situated to the president’s right as he took the oath and delivered the address, was Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrat who lost to Bush in the Nov. 2 election. Three former presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the president’s father, George H.W. Bush, assumed honored positions on the platform. The younger Bush took the oath with his right hand on a family bible, backed by his wife, Laura Bush, and his 23-year-old twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna.

Vice President Dick Cheney also was sworn in to a second term, taking the oath delivered by House Speaker Denny Hastert of Illinois, just minutes before Bush.

In addition to his mandate to let freedom ring, the president touched on his desire to bring the nation’s warring political factions closer together, a subject he also emphasized during the days leading up to the inauguration.

“We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes _ and I will strive in good faith to heal them,” he said. “Yet those divisions do not define America. We felt the unity and fellowship of our nation when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart. And we can feel that same unity and pride whenever America acts for good, and the victims of disaster are given hope, and the unjust encounter justice, and the captives are set free.”

Bush touched on the subject a second time during the traditional congressional luncheon held in the Capitol after the conclusion of the ceremony.

“As leaders, we have a common duty to achieve results for the people, regardless of our political parties,” he told the assembled lawmakers. “There’s important work to be done and I look forward to working with members of both houses and both parties to achieve that job.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he and other Democrats hope the president’s sentiments are heartfelt and that “this spirit of unity will endure and work to secure a better future for the American people.”

“But to achieve unity within our government, both sides must be willing to compromise and cooperate _ two words we often see the Republicans use, but seldom put into action,” Schumer said. “During his first post-election press conference, the president announced his intent to spend ‘political capital.’ And he followed through on that promise by re-nominating 10 nominees to the federal court who had already been deemed unfit to serve by the last Senate.

“This is no way to kick off another four years,” he said.

Despite the continued cold relations between the parties, those attending the 55th inaugural ceremony expressed their pleasure at being there and watching Bush take the oath of office. William Edgar, a physician from Jackson, Miss., credited the president for having “covered his bases, he sure did.”

“We elected him with a mandate of more than 3 million votes,” Edgar said. “I think the pollsters are overstating all this stuff about division. Once we get the elections in Iraq behind us, we’ll be able to bring the troops home.”

Standing outside the Capitol shortly before the ceremony began, Ken Kingston of Bellbrook, Ohio, was so thrilled about being at his first inaugural that he pulled out his cell phone and called a friend back home.

“I just called to gloat that I was here,” he said, laughing. “She was jealous.”

Kingston and his wife, Kathy, wanted to attend the ceremony to celebrate Bush’s re-election, a victory made sweeter by the fact that their home state put the president over the top in the electoral-vote count.

“I like George W. Bush,” said Kingston, a special education teacher. “At times, he’s kind of goofy when he talks. But to me, he’s just a down-to-earth guy. I think he is a good president.”

Washington has grown too partisan, Kingston said, and Bush did what he could during his first term to unite the country. Still, he said, during the next four years the president needs to work even harder to bring the country together.

For Sharon Foley of Schenectady, N.Y., Thursday’s ceremonies marked the third time she has attended a presidential swearing-in _ but the first time as an invited guest.

When George H.W. Bush was sworn in 1989, she ended up standing far away from the stage, stuck beside a hotdog stand. This time _ thanks to tickets that she got through Rep. Michael McNulty, D-N.Y. _ she had a seat on the Capitol lawn.

“I feel like royalty,” she said, savoring the unobstructed view.

Foley said she doesn’t agree with everything President Bush does. At 53, she’s hoping to retire in a few years and she worries that Social Security won’t be around when she’s ready to quit her job.

Still, she gets angry when she hears others criticize the job that Bush is doing.

“Let them be president and try to run such a big country and make such big decisions,” she said.

Denmark native Lise Sonnen, who came to the United States 20 years ago and later became an American citizen, said being at the inaugural was particularly touching for her.

“This means more to me than most people, I think,” said Sonnen, who owns a car dealership near San Francisco. “I’m almost crying just thinking about it.”

As a European, she said she understands better than most people why it’s important for the United States to stand up for freedom. Her background gives her a greater appreciation for the president’s decision to go to war in Iraq, she said.

“If America had not been in Europe during World War II, I would not be an American,” she said. “War is awful, but sometimes very necessary.”

Kevin Williams and daughter Alex of Mount Carmel, Ill., sat some 100 yards from the podium, close enough to see former Presidents Clinton and Bush, the Supreme Court justices and the representatives and senators gathered on the dais.

“It was just part of the American experience,” said Williams, who left Wednesday morning at 6 to make it to the inauguration.

Not everyone gathered in Washington was happy to see the event take place. Thousands of protesters milled around downtown Washington and Capitol Hill during the ceremonies. The most visible demonstrations came from several individuals and small groups seated in the crowd on the west side of the Capitol who unfurled banners and shouted during the speech.

One protester, a man with sideburns wearing a cream-colored sweatshirt and jeans, ran toward a section beneath the spot where Bush delivered his address and screamed “Boooo! Boooo!” as Bush was wrapping up. The president appeared to look at the man, who had an unobstructed view of the president, while attendees shouted “shut up loser” and “go away.”

The man screamed, “Did you think about the war?” and flashed the peace sign as he was escorted away by police.

Far back in the crowd, M.J. Kesterson of Independence, Ore., listened to Bush and witnessed the protests, wearing a replica of a purple heart on her lapel.

It commemorates her son, Erik Kesterson, who died in Iraq in 2003 while serving with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Mosul.

“I love our president and our son loved our president,” she said. “When we lost Erik, I signed up to help the Republican Party.”

Even after their son’s death, Kesterson and her husband, Clay, said their support for Bush never wavered.

“It wasn’t the president who caused our son’s death,” she said. “It was the terrorists who attacked our country.”

Capitol police interviewed several protesters and arrested five. One “very pregnant” woman in the crowd went into labor at the foot of Capitol Hill shortly before Bush took the oath.

There were a number of episodes along or near the parade route, with protesters throwing rocks and bottles at police, waving signs and banners and breaking windows of emergency vehicles. A number of protesters were arrested during the parade.

At Pershing Park near the White House, people staked out spots on a hill overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, but police moved them behind a fence.

Greg Hildebrand, 27, of Arlington, Va., was in that crowd but said he didn’t mind the heightened security.

“The officers have been very helpful, very polite. It kind of goes unseen how hard they’re working,” he said.

Hildebrand said he believes Bush will have difficulty in uniting the nation in his second term.

” I think there’s a lot of people who dislike Bush no matter what he does. If Kerry had been elected, there would been people who would dislike him no matter what he did. It will be an uphill battle for Bush,” he said.

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)

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