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Clinton Urges End to DivisionBy John F. Harris and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page A01
William Jefferson Clinton took the oath of office yesterday in the last presidential inauguration of the 20th century, urging Americans to bury old racial and political divisions and declaring that the nation stands "on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs."
Standing under cool but sunny skies at the Capitol, the nation's 42nd president delivered an inaugural address brimming with hopeful visions of a "new century in a new millennium"—a time of safe streets, medical marvels and unrivaled prosperity swept in by the Information Age—and challenged his audience to turn "the hope of this day into the noblest chapter in our history."
The theme of reconciliation was woven throughout the 22-minute speech, and the crowd of more than 200,000 gave its strongest applause to Clinton's call for bipartisanship. "The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another," said Clinton, the first Democrat elected to a second term in 60 years. "Surely, they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No, they call on us instead to be repairers of the breach and to move on with America's mission. America demands and deserves big things from us, and nothing big ever came from being small."
While Clinton has not always embraced bipartisanship—lashing Republicans as extreme and lacking in compassion was central to his reelection—the importance of racial healing is his oldest and most steady commitment. The 50-year-old president, who grew up amid segregation in Arkansas, evoked the ideal of racial harmony yesterday not just in his rhetoric but in a wealth of symbols. He started his day at a national prayer service at the predominately black Metropolitan AME Church on M Street NW. The inaugural ceremony was filled with performances by African Americans, including opera diva Jessye Norman's medley of patriotic hymns, which sent an obvious wave of emotion through the crowd.
Clinton noted that he was speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, recalling the civil rights leader's famous 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the other end of the Mall. Despite progress, Clinton said, racial and ethnic divisions "plague us still."
"These obsessions cripple both those who hate and, of course, those who are hated, robbing both of what they might become," Clinton said. "We cannot, we will not succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere. We shall overcome them."
Perhaps the address's most cutting remark came in what appeared to be a veiled reference to the religious right. "Prejudice and contempt cloaked in the pretense of religious or political convictions are no different," Clinton said.
The nation's 53rd inauguration ceremony came on a crisp, dry winter day that, while still frigid, had warmed up considerably from the bitter cold wave that gripped the Washington area in recent days. Just as the festivities got underway, the sun broke through the clouds and brightened the west front of the Capitol, where the president and vice president sat with congressional leaders in fedoras and Supreme Court justices in black robes and caps.
Clinton, flanked by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, forsook overcoat, hat and gloves as he was sworn in for a second term by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at 12:05 p.m., five minutes behind the time set in the Constitution. "Good luck," Rehnquist told him afterward.
The president used the same family Bible as he did four years ago and had it turned open to Isaiah 58:12, a passage suggested by the Rev. Robert Schuller, who was at the White House on Saturday: "And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in."
Moments before, Vice President Gore was sworn in by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
While several senators said he told them he was even more excited than in 1993, Clinton looked more serene than exhilarated, an older, thinner and more seasoned figure than the buoyant, youthful-looking Washington newcomer of four years ago. Likewise, his audience was somewhat smaller and seemed more subdued than at his first inauguration, offering only mild applause during his address.
His morning was punctuated by a series of last-minute changes of mind, over both his words and his wardrobe.
After staying up until 1 a.m. working on his speech, aides said, he called in some more revisions before heading off for the early church service. After returning to the White House for a brief coffee with congressional leaders, he slipped out to use a computer in the usher's office to tinker with it one last time before departing for the Capitol. Likewise, he abruptly decided to change ties in a holding room, switching from a M.C. Escher print that he concluded was "a little busy," according to an aide, to a more sedate polka-dotted maroon tie.
The ceremony blended a mix of traditions, including an invocation by the Rev. Billy Graham (in what was his eighth inauguration), poetry by Miller Williams and Norman's stirring soprano performance.
In keeping with tradition whenever the top echelon of the federal government gathers in a single spot, a lone Cabinet member was kept away in case of a cataclysm wiping out the nation's leadership, in this case Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
As part of his claim as a national unifier, Clinton took pains to reach out to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), his first-term rival who has been humbled by an ethics investigation and faces a House vote on punishment today.
During his limousine ride to the ceremony—which included the inaugural committee leaders, Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.)—Clinton told Gingrich, "There's a moment [in life] to breach the differences," according to White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who said Gingrich agreed.
Later, during a luncheon in Statuary Hall after the swearing-in, when few people seemed to be going anywhere near Gingrich, the president leaned over after a toast to clink his glass with the embattled speaker in a friendly gesture that did not seem lost on either man.
Gingrich likewise put aside partisanship and called the day a "joyous occasion" as he presented American flags to Clinton and Gore that had flown over the Capitol earlier in the day. "We want each of you to, on occasion, look and remember that while we may disagree about some things, here you're among friends," Gingrich told them. "And as Americans, we cherish and wish you Godspeed in your administration.
The meal of shrimp, oyster and scallop tie, beef a la mode, beggar's pudding and quince ice cream—culled from an 1838 book of recipes from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, according to Warner—was followed by the traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The Clintons kept to their limousine most of the way, with the president waving behind closed windows. Using a hand-held microphone, Clinton called out "hello" and "welcome" to bystanders.
When he passed the marching band from Cody, Wyo., which had been told it could not come after months of preparation until Clinton personally intervened, the president said over the mike, "Hello, Cody, glad you're here!"
The Clintons got out to walk the last half-block and spent the rest of the afternoon in a reviewing stand in front of the White House before embarking on a grueling evening of partying at a record 14 official inaugural balls, plus an unofficial veterans ball. With 35 minutes allotted to each, the first couple expected to return home after 4 a.m.
As he has in recent interviews, the president in his speech asserted that the ideological war over the size and scope of government has ended with a compromise between the anti-government view of the Republicans and the much more expansive view of New Deal and Great Society Democrats.
In Clinton's formulation, government is smaller and leaner, but in cases where it can "make a real difference in [Americans'] everyday lives government should do more, not less."
"Today we can declare government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We, the American people, we are the solution," he said.
The line appeared to be a direct retort to Ronald Reagan's inaugural address in recession-torn 1981, when the new Republican president pronounced: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."
Clinton maintained that the country had benefited from his tenure. "When last we gathered, our march to this new future seemed less certain than it does today," Clinton said, taking credit for an improved economy and for "building stronger families, thriving communities, better educational opportunities, a cleaner environment."
The speech dealt almost exclusively in broad themes, touching on the administration's policy agenda only by inference.
Clinton appealed for a nation where children have "the certain chance to go to college," an apparent reference to his proposal for tax credits and deductions to offset the cost of tuition. And, with Clinton himself engulfed in controversy over the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising practices, he pledged a nation where "we will have reformed our politics so that the voice of the people will always speak louder than the din of narrow interest, regaining the participation and deserving the trust of all Americans."
The policy specifics, Clinton aides say, will begin coming forward today. Clinton, they said, will repeat his call for negotiations and an early agreement with Republicans on a plan to eliminate annual deficits by 2002. And, at a meeting of the DNC, he will begin a public push for reforming campaign finance laws.
Clinton's speech was laced with optimism about his imagined "land of new promise," a vision of America in which education and technology will help a new generation realize old promises about equality and opportunity for all. He became the first president to mention the words "microchip" and "Internet" in an inaugural address.
He invoked the "land of new promise" phrase five times, in what appeared a conscious attempt to fashion a defining slogan for his second term—much as New Deal, New Frontier and Great Society defined the programs of earlier Democrats.
In contrast to Clinton's cheery tone, the poem by Williams was chastening, as the Arkansas poet warned his listeners against complacency: "Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not. . . . Who has seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot."
Clinton described the nation as being atop a high perch of history, offering views of one century past and another to come. "My fellow Americans, as we look back at this remarkable century, we may ask, 'Can we hope not just to follow but even to surpass the achievements of the 20th century in America and to avoid the awful bloodshed that stained its legacy?' To that question, every American here and every American in our land today must answer a resounding 'Yes!' "
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company