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Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2001 / 28 Teves, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Can we be civil and bombproof at the same time?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- "CIVILITY, courage, compassion and character," a man intoned over the weekend.

The man wasn't President Bush.

He was a network television correspondent -- actually, several of them did this, on different networks -- reading aloud from Bush's inaugural address even before Bush had arrived on the inaugural stand.

Advance copies of the address had been handed out to the news media, and -- in the hold-nothing-back world of contemporary communications -- the correspondents seemed to feel there was nothing wrong with reading Bush's words to the nation before Bush had the opportunity to say those words himself.

Later, when Bush actually arrived at the podium and delivered the speech, he said: "Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos." Lovely and laudable words -- but a case can be made that, among the official party at the inauguration, the problem was not a lack of civility. The civility -- at least for that one day -- was there in abundance.

The politeness was so thick it could have smothered a bear. For all the talk of bare-knuckled political fights, the side of themselves that national politicians usually choose to allow us to see is purely civil, with not a scratch or a ding. The first words from Laura Bush to Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House on inauguration day: "Good morning, senator." The sight of a smiling President Clinton as he greeted the Bushes, with Clinton's arm around his wife. Al Gore's amazing ability to show virtually nothing as he watched Bush take the oath -- and his perhaps-even-more-amazing ability to show nothing as he stood near Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whom Gore almost certainly believes is the man who took away his last chance for victory. . . .

So here was Tom Kleinschmidt i Civility? It was everywhere, on the inaugural stand, and that is a fine thing. But Bush's most insightful words during his inaugural address were about another side of the state of the union:

"Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country."

And of course those words are correct. Who ever would have imagined an inaugural parade at which every person must be searched and electronically scanned before being allowed to stand on public streets and watch? Who ever would have envisioned an inaugural parade at which thick rows of police officers would form a moving human shield between the people and their president? A parade during which -- in the brief moments the new president emerges from his car -- there would be a collective nervous intake of breath around the nation, as if a daring circus performer was stepping into a cage full of famished tigers, instead of a president of the United States standing in front of his countrymen and countrywomen?

Not that the security precautions were unwarranted. They probably were well advised -- just as it probably is judicious that the new presidential limousine has a mightily reinforced undercarriage designed to withstand bomb explosions, and windows so gruesomely thick that no bullet can pierce them, and a self-contained oxygen-ventilation system to keep out poison gas. We have entered an emperor's-new-clothes era of national life -- we keep telling ourselves how happy we are, and we willingly choose not to see what is right in front of us as we throw up barricade after barricade to protect our president from us -- and ourselves from each other.

"The grand American continuity represented by an inauguration." That was the official sentiment of the weekend -- and in some ways, it was so. But if we are searching for reassurance that all is sunny, that nothing of importance in the land has really been altered. . . .

Well, that rolling vault in which we encase our elected chief executive -- the bombproof, airtight presidential car -- is a somber reminder.

If you know where to look, though, you can find glimmers of sunshine and true continuity. Over the weekend, I called the cell phone of my friend Philip Bardowell, guitarist for the Beach Boys, who I knew were playing at one of the inaugural galas.

He answered just as they were coming off stage at the party in Washington. I asked him what they had opened and closed with.

"You know," he said. "Same as always. First song `California Girls,' last song `Surfin' U.S.A.'"

The republic endures.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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