1993 Ad

Mel Elfin

He will awaken on Wednesday the most powerful man on the planet, the secular high priest of the American polity and, as he demonstrated last week in Iraq, commander of the world’s most potent military force. At midmorning, he and the victorious adversary he only recently scorned as an untrustworthy “bozo” will share amiable chitchat and the back seat of a presidential limousine as they journey together to the Capitol’s monumental west front for the quadrennial re-enactment of our democracy’s most sacred ritual — the inauguration of a president.

Four years before, it was he who stood at the locus of that minimalist rite, slowly intoning the 35 words that invested him with the powers, privileges and responsibilities of the presidency. But this time, he will stand in silent witness – the sorrow of loss still painfully evident in his craggy Yankee countenance – as that glittering prize is conveyed to his conquering rival. Afterward, the ruffled cadences of “Hail to the Chief” will echo across the wintry Washington sky, and he will feel a twinge of melancholy. It will no longer be his song. For George Herbert Walker Bush, it will be time to go.

By evening, he will be back in Houston, his domain and his writ diminished to the confines of hearth and home. The swift – and poignant – descent from power may leave him, at least temporarily, discomfited, disoriented and a trifle down in the dumps. Gradually, he will reacquaint himself with supermarket checkout counters, rush hour jams on I-610, unmowed lawns and the demands of an aging but strong-willed springer spaniel named Millie. Then, after a decent interval, the 41st president will announce that he has fully adjusted to his new life. Yet as former presidents soon discover, the adjustment can never really be complete. After living in the White House, everything else seems like life in the slow lane.

Bush’s transformation from president to ex-president will enlarge the club of living former chief executives to five, equaling a record and underscoring a hard truth: The American presidency is a sometime thing. Of the nation’s past seven chief executives, only Ronald Reagan managed to serve out his constitutionally allotted two full terms. The tenures of the other six were cut short by resignation, death, defeat or the prospect of defeat. Indeed, apart from Reagan, America’s presidents since 1960 have served an average of only 48 months in the Oval Office.

Yet this week is a time neither for dwelling on hard truths nor for recounting past misfortunes. Rather, it is a transient interval of suspended disbelief when Bill Clinton will savor the ultimate apotheosis of “The Comeback Kid” and George Bush will recall only the triumphs of his presidency and the grace with which he departed from it. Inauguration is also that brief shining moment when America renews its promises and resurrects its dreams, the time for hope – and this year, for the man from Hope.

COPYRIGHT 1993 All rights reserved.

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