Enduring Presidential Qualities

JANUARY 20, 1989

April in January. Not a bad beginning. Traditional symbols of Inauguration Day are omnipresent: flags and bunting draped from buildings and The Capitol, grandstands sprouting along Pennsylvania Avenue and on to the White House, press viewing platforms posted strategically throughout the parade route, bells pealing. These are familiar and reassuring, signs of stability and continuity that mark this peaceful passing of power on the 50th inauguration of an American president.

Others are new, and reflect the diversity of tastes in this country of nearly 250 million people. Across from the Washington Monument, near the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue, can be seen the tackiest inaugural display ! can remember since witnessing my first such ceremony exactly 28 years ago today with the coming to power of John F. Kennedy.

A replica of the Statue of Liberty has been plopped on the grounds, surrounded by a blizzard of small American flags. It is sickly green and looks forlorn and sadly out of place. Nearby is what is billed as "the world's largest chair," reported to weigh 10 tons and stand 51 feet high, according to The Washington Post.

This is supposed to be a copy of the "rising sun" chair that George Washington used 200 years ago when he presided over the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. I fancy myself a student of American history, but until this moment I had never heard of this celebrated chair nor do I get the connection and significance it has to their inaugural. Live and learn.

Surrounding this display are large box-like structures, also sprouting little American flags from their tops. Panels on them depict heroic American scenes such as Molly Pitcher and Valley Forge. Standing out in relief are huge faces of selected American presidents, including a poor likeness of George Bush. They resemble carnival masks of a Mardi Gras parade.

This display, promoted to celebrate "George to George" American presidents over the last 200 years in this official bicentennial inaugural, is so bad that it's almost good, Kitsch on the Mall. Come to think of it, in its way, it also sends a reassuring signal--proof that there remains room for all forms of expression and tastes in this nation. What I consider to be gross, or amusing, others may believe to be great and uplifting. Hail diversity and difference of opinion.

Finally, one more sign deserves note.

At the edge of Lafayette Park, facing away from Bush's inaugural parade review platform and the White House in the background, someone has posted a hand-lettered sign. It reads:

In patriotic lore and presidential myths, the great chief executives are said to have possessed extraordinary personal traits: courage, boldness,vision. Ronald Reagan was the "Great Communicator." Kennedy had "great charisma." Harry S Truman had "great guts." Franklin D. Roosevelt had, of course. "great charm" and immense "personal magnetism."

Fine and well, if true, but as for me I'll trade all that fabled past presidential charm, charisma and acting skills for those two simple virtues of wisdom and honesty.

Because of the plethora of unresolved and postponed national problems he inherits, Bush's will be a presidency of hard choices. None promises to be easy. Many likely will be unpopular. Making the right choices will require something more than showmanship and performing skills. They will require care, deliberation, judgment. In the last eight years, America has experienced positively so--an appeal to its spirit. Too often, it seemed, presidential wisdom was in short supply. Now, it is time to appeal to America's mind.

As for that second quality, the last eight years have seen an erosion of public standards and an anything-goes climate of greed and double dealing. This week's damning Justice Department report or! the condu Edwin Meese III as attorney general stands as an indictment of high-level official behavior in Washington. It's also a call for action by the new president. Setting an ethical standard starts from the top. Restoring a sense of fairness in American life will be a paramount test of the Bush presidency.

Wisdom and honesty: the very qualities Americans have yearned for in their presidents since the first George so long ago--and the same ones Bush will most need in the White House to lead America into the 1990s.

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