After last week's inauguration extravaganza, the former mayor of New York and ambitious Republican, Rudy Giuliani, found himself as he often does, with a microphone in front of his face. I don't have his exact words, but this is pretty close to what he said about George W. Bush: "One thing you can count on, if he says he'll do something, he'll do it."
I kid you not. Rudy actually said that. The man he was talking about, of course, is the man who campaigned in 2000 as "a uniter, not a divider," and then created more divisions than one can imagine. He is also the man who spoke with scorn of "nation building," and then sent troops to destroy and then rebuild Iraq.
Ah, there is no end to the duplicity of politicians. Have you ever known a national politician who didn't invent, exaggerate or exploit the current "crisis" facing America, real or imagined? I've lived through 18 inaugurations, and every president from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush has promised to lead us through the current "crisis."
Sometime the crises are real. Roosevelt came into office shortly after the onset of the Great Depression and continued on through World War II. When that ended, the Cold War began, and each president in his turn had to shepherd us through that crisis. They milked the Cold War for all it was worth, from Truman through Reagan.
In between were the crises of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Vietnam brings up a point. Today's conservatives think that liberals dislike Bush simply because Bush is a conservative. That's utter nonsense. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson was vilified by the Left, by liberals, by Democrats far more than Bush is vilified by that same crew today.
It's not the label, folks. It's what they do. A goodly share of Americans hate unnecessary wars. They hate them simply because they are little more than legalized murder.
After the Soviet Union dissolved itself, ending the Cold War, it was a little harder for politicians to find crises, but Saddam Hussein fixed that problem for the first George Bush. Now, of course, we have Osama bin Laden and international terrorism, a continuing crisis that should give heart to politicians for some time to come -- not to mention the crisis Bush created in Iraq.
If it had been up to me, last week's inauguration would have been held in the Oval Office or some similar venue, with perhaps only a few dozen people on hand. It would have cost ... oh, I don't know ... perhaps $12. Instead of paralyzing the District of Columbia and turning it into a kind of fortress prison, it would have inconvenienced almost nobody.
Disliking George W. Bush as I do, I would like to fault him for last week's excesses, but I'm afraid they all do it. There seems to be a competition. Each new chief executive that you and I hire seems to strive to be more obscenely gaudy than all those before him.
For novelty, last week's show had the added fillip of forced isolation for dissenters. What a country!
I've never been a fan of pomp and circumstance. Perhaps shows like the one last week are too reminiscent of similar shows in Red Square on May Days. Or I think of those impressive rallies held by the Germans in the 1930s, or the Chinese Communists in more recent years. Central American dictators were once famous for their fancy uniforms and their impressive parades and ceremonies. Those shows remind me of evil, and I hate to see them in our nation's capital.
And why, I wonder, do we always have to flex our muscles at these events? All nations seem to do it. Think of the massive military displays by the Soviets during their heyday. I'd prefer a display of our accomplishments rather than proof of our ability to kill.
Bush fans fault us liberals because we're annoyed by Bush's religiosity. In one sense, they're right. It's obligatory for our presidents to end their inaugural addresses with references to God. They've all done it. Bush is not unique in that respect. And they bring in the clergy for prayers and invocations and other demonstrations of faith, often in greater numbers than Bush does. As observers of Hillary Clinton will attest, there is no limit to how much a politician will pander to people's religious beliefs. (Clinton spoke warmly of faith-based initiatives at a recent gathering.)
What sets Bush apart from others is the way he wears his religion on his sleeve. Jimmy Carter, perhaps the most truly religious of all our recent presidents, made no bones about being "born again," but beyond that he held his religious beliefs privately. Bush tends to make a show of his beliefs, and that's what makes him different -- and draws the ire of liberals.
Bush's speech last week was delivered well. He seems to be growing with his job. But the speech's content was sorely lacking. They say the speech went through 41 revisions. I would have recommended 42.
What did our president say about the continuing problem of election fraud in the United States? What did he say about our medical treatment problems? About the millions of workers out of work or holding down mere survival jobs far below their capabilities? How about our growing national debt, our inability to live within our means? How about the real economic crises in cities and counties and states? How about our effect on climate change? What are we doing to preserve our environment? How are we preparing for the diminution of the world's oil reserves?
What Bush said, he said well, but it was mostly puff. You can't use the buzzwords "liberty" and "freedom" as often as he did and expect to be taken seriously. It was a feel-good speech. It lacked real substance.
But maybe that's the hallmark of the Bush administration: style over substance. Happy talk, glad handing, back slapping, sure, but where's the beef?
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist. His column appears Mondays in the San Francisco Chronicle.
E-mail him at email@example.com.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle