Bush must confront darker issues
It is the newly formed president's duty, as well as ours, to extend the history of American promise into another chapter of American greatness. Inaugural addresses are calls to arms in this titanic struggle and in his, George W. Bush declared that "in the quiet of American conscience we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise." He talked too of a need to agree that "children at risk are not at fault" and that prisons, now growing faster than ever, are no substitute for hope and order for our souls.
Persistent poverty, children at risk and prisons all came to play in the heinous crimes that occurred during the week of the election that ultimately placed Bush in the White House.
First, 25 youths ranging in age from 12 to 27 gang-raped a 13-year-old mentally disabled girl in Georgia. The assaults, which took place more than six hours following a high school football game in an impoverished Atlanta neighborhood, happened in two abandoned apartments in the same complex and were videotaped by participants.
On the same day that police drew blood from suspects in the Atlanta rapes for DNA tests, news emerged of a similar gang rape in Berkeley, Calif., involving a mentally disabled 12-year-old girl and boys aged 11 to 16. The girl was held down by the boys, who raped her in 11 different locations over the course of an afternoon.
The sheer horror of these crimes was eclipsed only by the media's failure to report them widely. Caught up in the election and its aftermath, few reporters commented on the heinous nature of the crimes or related the crimes to either candidate's domestic policy platform.
Had they occurred a week earlier in the election cycle, the people might have placed a higher priority on the social services each candidate pledged to fight for, Bush might not have been elected the 43rd President of the United States and the inaugural address he gave last Saturday might have been given by Al Gore instead.
In that case, the loudest applause given by the crowd gathered at the Mall might not have been in response to a call for tax cuts, a policy hailed that morning in The New York Times by William F. Buckley, Jr. as the most morally pressing matter Bush can attend to at the outset of his presidency. "He must avoid the endless argument about whom to benefit, whom to deprive," Buckley said and instead end "the moral problem in the government's withdrawing from the taxpayers' pockets more than is required."
In the context of the rapes which occurred in early November and the high rates of violent crime of which they are part, Bush's emphasis on tax cuts seems ill-fitted to our nation's needs and Buckley's pronouncement, which trumpeted them as the foremost moral priority, perverse.
The challenge of our times may not be as acute as racial segregation or the threat of Nazi tyranny, to which Bush alluded in his address, but the subtle effects of economic inequality and the breakdown of the American family have equally profound consequences.
According to the National Office for Juvenile Justice, each high school dropout who turns to a life of crime and drugs costs society $2.2 to $3 million, which, in a society that values value, should move us to pay for social services now rather than later.
Into this mess comes the relative inexperience of Bush, whose Vice President voted against Head Start and among whose first official acts was to declare Sunday a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.
Asking Americans to "bow their heads in humility before our heavenly Father" as well as making eight explicitly religious references during his 14-minute inaugural speech worries those who know it will take a lot more than prayer to solve our social problems.
Bush's inaugural rendition of the time-honored slogans of our democracy, of living in a "new world that became a friend and liberator of the old" and "a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom," do not match the age in which we live so much as his other comments on the persistence of poverty, at-risk children and prisons.
While triumph is part of our history, so too is the economic and social conditions that fostered the brutal gang rape of two mentally retarded children.
Keeping this in mind helps explain why the pageantry of democracy surrounding Bush's address did not assuage the unease felt by many at entrusting the fate of our nation to an executive who prefers short work days and whose background does not seem to include involvement with the issues he is now charged to address. And while his inaugural may not have fully come to terms with the darker side of America, we can only hope his presidency will.
This column first appeared in the Harvard University newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, on January 22, 2001 and is reprinted here courtesy of U-WIRE.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, January 24, 2001