The Big Moment: It was a dismal, dank day. Famously inarticulate, Bush spoke in elevated terms

Aseries of articles from The Independent archive recalling key events of the past decade: Bush becomes 43rd President – 20 January 2001


Never was the result of an American election more controversial than that which marked the entry of the second George Bush into the White House. After the farce of the hanging chads, a five-week legal battle, and the unprecedented intervention of the Supreme Court, the Texas Republican became the 43rd President, even though he lost the popular vote. On a gloomy January day in Washington, Bush returned to his campaign theme of compassionate conservatism, promising to unite the 50/50 nation, and made only passing reference to international affairs, which would come to dominate his two terms. Al Gore, who many thought had unjustly robbed of victory, looked on, as did both Bush's predecessor, an emotional Bill Clinton, and his predecessor's predecessor, whom he calls Dad.



With his proud parents looking on, George W Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States at noon yesterday, becoming only the second son of a President to attain the country's highest office. The inauguration proceeded with all the pomp, split-second timing and self-congratulatory patriotism of the world's lone superpower, despite the vocal dissent of some in the crowd.

In his 25-minute address, the famously inarticulate Mr Bush spoke in terms as elevated as he had promised. He made only one direct reference to the election he had so controversially won, paying compliments to his rival, the former vice-president Al Gore, "for a contest conducted with spirit, and ended with grace". While echoing his campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism", however, the speech made allusions to the divided country he was inheriting. "While many of our citizens prosper," he said, "others doubt the promise – even the justice – of our own country ... Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country."

And he went on, in terms that would not shame a newly elected Democratic president: "We do not accept this, and we will not allow it ... And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity."

He also issued a challenge to America, just as Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did before him, though without their rhetorical ring. "What you do is as important as anything government does," he said. "I ask you to be citizens. Citizens, not spectators. Citizens, not subjects. Responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character."

Personal responsibility and character were two of the qualities that Mr Bush emphasised during his campaign to contrast himself with the former president Bill Clinton and his personal moral lapses. On foreign relations, dismissed in one cursory paragraph, Mr Bush sought to reassure allies about America's continued "engagement in the world". But his remarks were also more traditionally conservative, warning enemies that the US intended to act from a position of strength.

It was a dismal, dank day in Washington for the inauguration of a president who won the White House only after a five-week legal tussle and without winning the popular vote. Even many of the dignitaries covered their formal dress with cheap plastic cloaks, and Mr Bush's collar and scarf were sodden by the time he had finished his speech.

Security was tight in anticipation of protests. The hundreds of thousands of spectators were required to pass through security checkpoints. Blue-helmeted riot police were much in evidence and sharpshooters were clearly visible on rooftops along the route. There were some scuffles, but no disruption to the formal proceedings.

Mr Bush swore the oath of office on the same King James Bible that his father had used 12 years before. The single-sentence oath obliges the President to "faithfully execute the Office of President" and "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", and supplied an oblique reminder of the arguments advanced for and against Mr Clinton during his impeachment ordeal two years before.

Throughout the ceremony, Mr Clinton maintained the demeanour of dignity and affability that marked all his public appearances as President. He walked over to greet Laura Bush warmly and exchanged some words with the Bushes' 19-year-old twin daughters before the swearing-in began. He walked off the platform in genial conversation with Mr Bush, with whom he has often appeared to share more genuine rapport than he did with his Vice-President.

Mr Clinton had fulfilled his post-impeachment promise to work "to the last hour of the last day" of his presidency, issuing his last presidential pardons just half an hour earlier.

Contrary to some expectations, he did not pardon Michael Milken, the Wall Street financier, who pleaded guilty to fraud in 1990; nor did he pardon Web Hubble, a former Justice Department official in his administration and one-time colleague from Arkansas, who was convicted of tax evasion. He did, however, pardon Susan McDougal, a partner in the Whitewater land venture that had caused the Clintons so much grief. Ms McDougal spent 18 months in prison for contempt after refusing to testify against the Clintons.

Other beneficiaries included Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress who turned terrorist after being kidnapped by a revolutionary group, and his own half-brother, Roger, who was convicted of minor drug offences in the Eighties. The Clintons flew out of Washington soon after the inauguration ceremony ended, travelling by car to Andrews Air Force base, where an exultant and emotional crowd of supporters and former staff were packed into a hangar to see them off. Mr Clinton's eyes misted over at the size of the crowd and the warmth of his reception.

The Clintons' last trip on Air Force One took them to New York, and their home in the commuter suburb of Chappaqua. Hillary Clinton had taken the day off from her Senate duties so that the family could leave, as they came in to office, together. Observers noted that Mrs Clinton's absence would have been widely intepreted as signalling that the marriage ended with her husband's presidency.

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