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Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2001 / 2 Shevat, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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On power -- IT HAS IRRITATED for some time now, the catchphrase used to label what was formalized by the marching bands and oaths of office and grand yet simple ceremonies Saturday:

The transition of power.

Power is a word for military exercises, sporting events, machines, empires, cars and trucks, ties, lunches, even entertainments . . . but not a republic. The Russians -- whether in czarist, communist, or chaotic times of transition -- have always referred to government as the Vlast, the Power. The word has an arbitrary ring, which helps explain why the Russians are always searching for an elusive legitimacy in their rulers. Mere power does not confer authority. Authority is a matter of moral legitimacy.

What happened Saturday in Washington was not an exchange of scepters and titles, a transition of power, but a transfer of authority -- legal, political and moral authority. Power was the least of it. Which may explain why there is no question about the legitimacy of American presidents on their inauguration -- even if they do not receive a majority of the popular vote, which happens regularly, or even in those rare instances where they may not receive the most votes, as happened in last year's election.

The moral legitimacy of an American president is determined after he takes the oath of office, not by how he won it. Richard Nixon's landslide in 1972 may have been the greatest electoral victory in American history. Two years later, his legitimacy was gone. The people never elected Gerald Ford president or vice president, but by his actions in office he earned legitimacy, and remains a respected elder statesman.

The first formal opportunity of an incoming president to cement that nebulous yet palpable quality called legitimacy, which goes far beyond his legal title to the office, is the inaugural address. That opportunity was presented to George Walker Bush at noon Saturday, when he took the oath of office. And in his own understated yet firm, comfortable yet humbled way, he seized it. Many more performances like that, and he will not remain our most underestimated president. He continues to rise above expectations.

The great thing -- well, one of the great things -- about the changes in American life is their constancy. This dance in history, this American hoedown, is more than a choreography of ideas and institutions. There is also a litany of names. Eight years ago, a Bush gave way to a Clinton, now a Clinton has given way to a Bush. At last, closure.

Like every end of a chapter in American history, it is the beginning of a new one. Saturday, George Herbert Walker Bush became the first American president to attend the inauguration of his son. (John Adams was too ill to attend John Quincy's inaugural. Besides, he abhorred ostentation.)

It was a great day for the Bushes and all the little shrubs. Even the 43rd president teared up just a little around the edges; it's a Bush family trait. And that, too, was understated, appropriate, assuring. A president of the United States should be able to shed a tear, and should be able to hide it. Some things are not for display purposes.

The old flags, the Old Glories, each different, each alike, were suspended above the ceremonies, as if looking down. They fluttered like the pages of a testament, reminding that a republic does not belong to any present generation, but to those who have passed and those who are to come. Flags and borders may change, even institutions and constitutions change, but some things remain constant about America. One of them is hope. It was in the air. So was trepidation; it lurked here and there. Let us be thankful for it. One cannot have courage without it.

Faces in the crowd:

There was the departing vice president, who, as the new president said, conducted his campaign with spirit and ended it with grace. Finally. It's not that W.'s style is so great, it's that four years of Al Gore's constant hectoring at the same volume -- High and Piercing -- would have been unbearable.

There was Jim Baker, the new president's lawyer during that 36-day second election and still slightly throbbing headache.

There was the newest ex-president, glad-handing to the end and beyond, campaigning this time for a legacy. His now daily farewell would run longer than the new president's inaugural address, or seem to.

There were movers and shakers and office-seekers and hangers-on. There were Trent Lott, Dick Armey, Dick Gephardt, and Dennis Hastert, all the amiliar second-rank faces. The courtiers are not easy to distinguish from the nobles at such times, for the distinction in a republic is not one of rank but character.

One would like to think this was not a transition of mere power, but the beginning of a deeper change: From division to unity, from well-founded suspicion to at least a tentative trust, from an emphasis on celebrity to a renewed appreciation of character. But no change is that simple in a society as dynamic as this one. Look at how long it took even a Ronald Reagan to turn us around, renew our spirit. What remains constant is the hope.

The president's oath of office is so much shorter than the vice-president's. Brevity is the soul of dignity -- in oaths and inaugural addresses. This new president, who's not supposed to know all that much, clearly knows that much. It won't take much getting used to, having a president whose speeches are brief.

What he did say was touched with eloquence:

He chose the exact word: "This peaceful transfer of authority'' -- note well: transfer of authority, not power -- "is rare in history, yet common in our country.'' God be thanked.

He reached out, as he will have to do again and again, and clearly wants to do: "While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise -- even the justice -- of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice, and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it.''

"Civility,'' said the new president, "is not a tactic or sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.'' It is an agreement to disagree, to strive together in both senses of the phrase. Civility is not a suppression of differences, but a sharing of them. If we will just level with one other, we will remain a community. When we don't, and trust evaporates, so does legitimacy.

Beyond all the fine words, the flags and folderol, the people stood and waited in the cold and damp, and in something else: their pride and hope. There was an elan even to the protests, which now come to be a formal part of the inaugural ceremonies.

There was this, too, in the air: decompression, a welcome sense of relief, a retreat from celebrity and hype. It felt good. Now and then the fog and theatrics lifted, and the gray beauty of it all broke through. And one realized that, beyond the Mall, beyond the capital, beyond the blare and tinsel, America and liberty still stretched west.

There are ceremonial times when it all runs together, the American past and present and future. "In Washington, the weather remained cold and gray. Across the land the fog began to lift.'' Those are the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., describing the presidential inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his prologue to "The Crisis of the Old Order.''

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