Hard climb ends at the pinnacle

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 12/14/2000

ASHINGTON - He ran against the biggest obstacles in American politics: prosperity, peace, and precedent. He ran against an opponent with all the advantages: experience, exposure, and near incumbency.

And still, despite all those trends and tides and the longest election in more than a century, the nation finally realized yesterday that it had delivered one of the most extraordinary political victories in its history to George W. Bush.

The ascent of Bush, a classic late bloomer, seemed to be accomplished with ease. But the last month's agony, when the candidates and the voters they wooed had to endure the riveting but maddeningly slow toting up of democracy's verdict, was a symbol of Bush's difficult passage.

He came to politics late and learned its lessons slowly. He overcame hurdles and doubters. He did with difficulty what the great intuitive politicians of the modern age, including Ronald Reagan, accomplished with ease and elan.

He won by allowing his rivals to underestimate him, first in Texas, then in a national campaign, finally in the crucible of court challenges in Florida. His first tasks as president-elect will be to assuage concerns among the half of the electorate who voted against him that he has the capacity to lead the nation - and to heal the wounds, sadness and hard feelings of the election overtime.

He began that undertaking last night, inviting Pete Laney, the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, to introduce him and then describing bipartisanship as ''the challenge of our moment.''

But politics is, as Henry Adams once put it, ''the systematic organization of hatreds,'' and the challenge of Bush's moment is clear: to use the political arts to tamp down the political hatreds that have been stoked since Nov. 7.

The very improbability of the victory of Bush - who seemed to glide through the campaign, as he did through life - over Vice President Gore - whose plodding, cerebral style was as evident in the election aftermath as it was in the campaign itself - was lost in the flurry of recounts and court decisions. It will almost certainly be obscured in the days to come, when Bush formalizes the transition team he has cobbled together and begins to fashion a presidential administration in earnest.

But Bush, a man who has been in elected office for only six years, has notched a remarkable achievement, marking him not only as a formidable force as a campaigner but also raising the possibility, so appealing to a nation weary of Washington and its intransigence, that he might be able to bring a sense of freshness and possibility to the capital.

No matter how narrow, no matter how hard-fought, Bush's triumph after what he described last night as ''the long wait'' did send a signal. Americans were willing to upend the natural order of politics, to deny a promotion to a vice president at a time of affluence and social peace, in the hope that the Texas governor can do for the country what he did for the Republican Party: be a unifying force and lessen the divisions that have defined our politics.

That was the yearning that tens of millions of Americans, voting in polling places across a continent and beyond, were sending Bush, the new Congress and the political establishment.

And yet for all the unusual characteristics of the first election of the new century, the new president followed a well-trod path to victory. Like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the three governors who preceded him in the leap from the state house to the White House, Bush will take power in Washington after a campaign against Washington.

In his campaign he showed flashes of bluntness and boldness. He tailored his national convention in Philadelphia to the Democrats and independents outside the hall rather than the partisans inside it. He displayed reluctance to debate and then put his rival on the defensive throughout the televised sessions. He showed grit in weathering the November tempest over his drunken-driving arrest. He outlasted and often outmaneuvered his rival in an extraordinary 36-day long struggle for the 25 electoral votes of Florida that eventually delivered him the presidency.

At every important juncture of the campaign, he outperformed his image.

And now he must craft a compelling presidential image for himself, one robust and alluring enough to enable him to thrive in the office his father was forced to relinquish after Clinton and Gore routed the Republican ticket eight years ago.

Yet even as Bush's ascent and triumph stand as a remarkable personal achievement, two important personalities shared the moment.

One was Bush's father, redeemed in retirement by the triumph of his son. Yesterday's victory of a grandson of a senator and the son of a president confirms the Bushes as one of the great political dynasties in post-war history.

The other was Bush's predecessor, whose alchemy of achievement and disgrace rendered him one of the most colorful, enigmatic figures on the American stage. Yesterday's defeat of Clinton's vice president was in part a repudiation of the president himself.

Still, Bush's is a remarkably fragile mandate. Slightly less than half of the American electorate judged him more honest than his competitor, and the more natural a leader - but he won his vote in states that, in the end, yielded a winning electoral majority. His remarkably slim margin of victory almost certainly will reinforce his inclination for the moderate way - a predilection that may prove just the match for a Congress without a clear majority for any cause, and without compelling leaders.

Now that his political skills have been confirmed, it is Bush's leadership skills that will be tested in ways that no peacetime president has been tested since Rutherford B. Hayes.

The markets are worried, the political difficulties are great. The new president will face a bitterly rent Congress without the benefit of a robust mandate. But despite all the mixed messages that emerged from this year's long and close election, there was no ambiguity about one of them:

America's new president knows how to rise to a challenge.