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Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2001/ 1 Shevat, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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Tale Of Two Presidents -- WITH the hindsight of, oh, a week, one can already, and with certainty, contrast our current and just-departed presidencies.

The Bush inauguration was remarkable for its modesty. It was spare, restrained. No grandiloquent singer. No poet (remember Maya Angelou going on about "the Jew . . . the Sioux" and "the Greek . . . the Sheik" at Clinton's first inauguration?). 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 inauguration that included a sea of cowboy boots, 10-gallon hats and big hair. But even the evening's celebrations showed restraint. There were fewer balls. 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 inauguration 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" or "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 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 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.

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01/22/01: Disqualified by His Religion?
01/15/01: Middle East madness
12/29/00: Bush's to-do list
12/22/00: Bipartisan blather
12/18/00: Defenders of the Law
12/08/00: Myths of chad
11/27/00: No more rule rewrites
11/17/00: Not by hand
11/13/00: Democracy and Legitimacy
11/06/00: Why Bush will win
10/30/00: Realities of war
10/23/00: Arafat's strategy
10/16/00: The Sleepwalkers
10/06/00: Arafat's War
10/02/00: Slanted to the Left
09/25/00: A Political Lite-Year
09/18/00: Barak's Last Chip
09/11/00: When Liberals Get Religion
09/05/00: Humbled by the Hayden
08/28/00: Man for All Seasons
08/14/00:... Back to the Future
07/31/00: The WWII Memorial: Inadequate and Out of Place
07/19/00: Camp David: Finality
07/12/00: The Oslo Interlude
07/10/00: Buchanan's Gift To Bush
07/03/00: Hafez Assad's Mourners
06/19/00: Hafez Assad's Mourners
06/12/00: Missile Defense Destiny
06/05/00: Let Peacekeeping Rest in Peace
05/30/00: Bush On Track
05/22/00: A Palestinian 'Peace'
05/15/00: Motherhood Missed
05/08/00: Regis Rules!
04/28/00: The Picture
04/24/00: Beware a Clinton Arms Deal
04/17/00: Cold War Kid
04/10/00: Our Russian payload
04/03/00: The Path to Putin
03/27/00: Red Cross Snub
03/20/00: A Nation of Oil Addicts
03/13/00: McCain in 2004
03/06/00: McCain off course
02/28/00: Profile in Courage
02/16/00: Europe's Austria Hypocrisy
02/14/00: A Winner? Yes
02/07/00: Politics in a Golden Age
01/31/00: Why Elian Should Stay
01/21/00: A Network Sellout . . .
01/14/00: Screwball Psychologizing
01/07/00: Desperately Seeking a legacy: Peace of the Anti-Semites
12/10/99: Born to Run
12/03/99: Keep Bubba home --- and his mouth shut
11/29/99: Not for Moi, Thanks
11/19/99: Where's the 2000 Buzz?
11/12/99: Reluctant Cold Warriors
11/08/99: Federalism's New Friends
10/29/99: The Phony Battle Against 'Isolationism'
10/25/99: Still With the Soul Of a Candidate
10/18/99: Nixon On the Couch
10/11/99: Slouching Toward The Center

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