Without finality, Bush cannot begin

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 12/3/2000

USTIN, Texas - He trotted out his would-be secretary of state last week and huddled with congressional leaders yesterday, but this is not the happy time George W. Bush envisioned for himself, the chance to revel in an election win and show he can be the leader he pledged.

The period between Election Day and Inauguration Day was to be a time when he returned to his preferred routine of a 6 a.m. wake-up, food for the pets, coffee in bed with his wife, and a day of staff meetings interrupted only by a two-hour break for exercise.

Those things are happening, but the lingering election dispute between Bush and Vice President Al Gore - and the possibility that Gore could still win - has hampered the Texas governor's efforts to accomplish what he promised to do upon winning: build a government and rally the nation behind him.

It may also affect the agenda he can set should he prevail and become the nation's 43d president.

As a candidate, Bush pledged to construct an administration of smart, capable, and ethical people. He said he would work in a bipartisan manner with Congress, ending the rancor that had prevailed in Washington. He outlined a simple, five-point agenda: better schools, better health care, a stronger national defense, revamped Social Security and Medicare systems, and a $1.3 trillion tax cut.

On that point in particular he made an assertion. As he stumped from Iowa to New Hampshire, from South Carolina to California and the Pacific Northwest, Bush said he was building a national consensus for his tax plan and would one day stand before Congress with a bold but clear declaration: This plan I bring you has been endorsed by the will of the people.

Then came the murkiness of the nation's presidential vote. Gore won the popular vote, but Bush claimed the lead in Florida and, eventually, the state's 25 electoral votes. The votes from Florida would give Bush 271 electoral votes, one more than the minimum needed for victory in the Electoral College.

The dispute about who actually won Florida has victimized both Bush and Gore, but the Republican candidate has perhaps been the one more affected, because he traversed the country with a promise of newness and vitality.

In the past month, that sentiment has evaporated; in its place are questions about whether it will ever return.

For a spare hour on election night, Bush succeeded in the necessary prelude to fulfilling his governmental promise. He won the presidency. Perhaps more than the power being vested in him, there was an undeniably stirring personal achievement.

After just six years in elective office, even with the advantage of a deep family background in politics, Bush had overcome questions about his intelligence, maturity, and vision to become the first son to follow his father as president since John Quincy Adams matched the achievement of his father, John Adams, in 1824.

In the following days, Time magazine printed a picture of Bush's triumphant moment. His father, President George Bush, looked on proudly as a misty-eyed Bush leaned over for an approving smooch from his mother, Barbara Bush. Brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, watched in relief, after an apparent loss in his home state had been transformed into an election winner for his elder sibling.

Barely 50 minutes later, though, the storybook year turned over a jarring new chapter. Gore called back to retract the concession he had proffered, and the dispute began its spiral into the courts of legal and public opinion.

Bush the elder put it this way last Wednesday: ''It was a moment of euphoria. There hasn't been a euphoric moment since.''

The current limbo has left Bush's staff grasping when asked to describe how he feels.

''It's certainly unprecedented,'' said Karen Hughes, the governor's chief spokeswoman. ''We all recognize that this is an unusual circumstance ... so we're all trying to operate as appropriate as we go forward.''

Much of the new approach that Bush promised on the trail has fallen prey to the kind of brash partisanship he had decried.

Even after last Sunday's certification of Florida's vote, even after Bush's admittedly humbled acceptance of the presidency two hours later, the lingering tenuousness of his claim on the presidency has raised questions about whether he can truly claim a mandate for his agenda.

In addressing the nation after the Florida certification, Bush returned to his sacred campaign issues point-by-point, glossing over recent events and the fact that Gore had won the nation's popular vote by better than 300,000 votes. Yearning to look forward, he acted as if his arguments on the trail had delivered him the people's endorsement, that the turbulence that followed Election Day had not undercut his pitch or claim.

In what amounted to a victory speech, he restated his priorities and said, ''I will work with members of Congress from both parties'' to achieve them.

Attempting to show the nation that he was moving forward on his goal, he brought retired General Colin L. Powell to his ranch in central Texas Thursday, amid speculation that he would be Bush's secretary of state. Yesterday, the governor's guests were Senate majority leader Trent Lott and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

''I'm soon to be the insider. I'm soon to be the president,'' Bush declared as the trio prepared to talk about his political agenda. ''I feel one of the reasons I'm sitting here is because of the agenda, and it was a clear agenda. We had a pretty tough battle.''

Bush said he was eager to talk about his $1.3 trillion tax cut plan, saying there were ''warning signs'' that the US economy may be cooling. ''I believe the agenda we'll bring to Congress will help the economic growth of this country,'' he said.

Recognizing the highly charged political atmosphere in Washington, Bush has been considering Democrats for his administration. He admitted yesterday he had spoken Friday with US Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana, a possible choice for energy secretary.

''I had a good discussion with him,'' Bush said of Breaux. ''I knew it might put him in an awkward position, that we had a discussion before finality has finally happened in this presidential race.

''I'd known John before, so he felt comfortable and I felt comfortable about having just a general discussion about the state of affairs here in American politics.''

The admitted awkwardness of the conversation showed that Bush still lacks the sense of accomplishment he expected to feel after the election.

The last month has confronted him with a darker reality he will have to overcome if, indeed, he is ultimately sworn in as president.

On the stump those many days ago, Bush offered his audiences a dramatic and photogenic closer.

His ideas and hopes expressed, he would raise his right hand as if taking the oath of office. Then he would pledge that, if elected, he would ''restore honor and integrity to the office to which I have been elected.''

After an interregnum that lacked the joy or promise he long imagined, it may be the most important achievement of that administration he hoped - and hopes - to build.

It may also put a real smile back on his face.