Archive for Monday, January 29, 2001

Citizens also face adjustment

January 29, 2001


— George W. Bush has embarked on a new voyage as president. Since every American's views toward government change with new leadership, you and I are off on a new voyage, as well as citizens. So far, Bush seems to be trying to do his part honorably. About us, it's too early to tell.

Bush began his presidency with an inaugural call for unity, civility, mutual respect and compassion. He launched his first big initiative on education with compliments for an education proposal that Democrats had made the day before. And, he noted, "We share a moment of exceptional promise ... and we have a chance to think anew and act anew."

There are differences of opinion about reforms, he said. "I made my opinion very clear in the course of the campaign, and will take my opinion to the Hill and let folks debate it." A good prescription for deliberative democracy.

Departing from his own agenda, Bush agreed with congressional leaders to support the study of dramatic reforms in U.S. elections. "I hope people are now beginning to realize that when I said the executive branch is willing to work with the legislative branch to do what's right for the country, it's not hollow words it's what I believe we need to do," he said.

Bush invited John McCain, his nemesis in the primaries, over to the White House to talk about the campaign finance proposal that McCain has reintroduced and that Bush opposes. As a new resident of the nation's capital, he invited Washington's mayor, Anthony Williams, over for lunch.

It's also true that Bush immediately cut foreign aid to overseas groups that provide abortions to poor women. It's no surprise that this would be his position. And it's worth noting that a new President Clinton acted just as quickly to reinstate that aid. Still, U.S. law already forbids such groups from using U.S. money for abortion, requiring them to use their own funds making Bush's couching of the matter disingenuous. And the move was hard to square with Bush's pledge of humility toward other nations. Perhaps he took this dramatic step to appease supporters upset by Laura Bush's surprise recent statement that Roe vs. Wade should not be overturned.

But this gets us off-track. Motive-sniffing is hardly the citizen's highest calling and citizenship is a very high calling. Clinton said in his farewell address, "In the years ahead, I will never hold a position higher or a covenant more sacred than that of president of the United States. But there is no title I will wear more proudly than that of citizen."

This title we bear is so noble because, without a decent citizenry, there can be no decent government. I heard a scholar recently discuss the terrible struggles Russia is having instituting the rule of law. The problem isn't just the leadership's lack of expertise or commitment, he said; it's the public's. When the people have no expectation of fairness in the courts, the courts have little incentive to deliver it.

As an inscription on the U.S. Department of Justice puts it, "Justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens." .

Judging from what I hear these days, our capacity for these attributes is sorely tried, even among very thoughtful people. Here, for example, is one recent e-mail from a reader in Charlotte: "Us vs. Them does describe the prevailing feeling in our country. We can thank Bill Clinton for creating and promoting much of this tension. Clinton pitted Americans against one another by driving the wedges of race, economic status, sex, age and sexual orientation between us. Whether or not this can be repaired is a very good question."

Makes you wonder how well we're going to be able to move forward, doesn't it? But consider what else the two said. The Charlotte reader ended, "At least Bush says he's willing to try." And the unsettled first reader described how she had changed: "Now I call my senator daily, fax, e-mail and write to media outlets and other politicians."

Hope and engagement: For the new voyage that "we the people" are now embarked upon, these will be among the essentials.

Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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