I was home for the day last Thursday, my car in the shop, glancing up from the work in my lap to the television screen as the president and first lady climbed into their black Oldsmobile, surrounded by black limousines and solemn men in long black overcoats. Along the sidewalks of Washington, D.C., there wasn't a pedestrian in sight. Instead, spectators seated on raised bleacher seats had paid for the privilege of watching the procession drag by. A disembodied voice over a loudspeaker cued the crowd as the president's vehicle rolled past: George W. Bush! Let's hear it for the 43rd President of the United States of America!
Beyond the flanks of Secret Service agents surrounding the president, flanks of armed military troops lined the sidewalks -- CNN reported some 6,000 law enforcement personnel and 2,500 soldiers enlisted for the day.
I flipped from station to station, trying to get another view, but the spectral procession rolled on. As the presidential motorcade (a phrase I will always associate with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) approached a group of protestors, jammed into a pen and surrounded by military men with raised guns, the president's car sped up and the Secret Service men began to jog, then to run, until they were well past the demonstration.
On CNN, Andrea Mitchell snubbed the protestors and their signs, commenting that she wasn't sure how seriously anyone really took them since this was President Bush's day.
Finally, on ABC, commentator George Will, in a voice sounding completely flummoxed, said: "This is unworthy!" referring to the fortification of the motorcade another commentator had just characterized as "tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue ... a military operation getting the President back from the Capital to his residence ... a poor example [to the rest of the world] of freedom and democracy." Another commentator likened the president's procession to that of a "Banana Republic kingpin." Peter Jennings, who had withheld comment to now, added: "It's not a very nice feeling."
An interview with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, however, allayed all our fears. "This is a great celebration of our democracy, of freedom!" crowed Card."
Lest we doubt that, the president had intoned the name of freedom no less than 27 times in his inauguration address, from behind a plate of bulletproof glass. His speech touted all kinds of freedom -- freedom from tyranny, freedom of economic independence, freedom of self government, freedom of an "ownership society." Let freedom ring.
But behind those words and code words and beyond the bulletproof podium, fear rang louder.
This was the first wartime president in the history of the republic to refuse to speak the word war or the name of the country our soldiers occupied -- in this case, Iraq -- in his inaugural address.
And unlike his predecessors, President George W. Bush refused to shoulder the government's complicity and responsibility in the country's most pressing problems.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn surprised spectators and Secret Service alike by walking the entire route from the Capital to the White House, stopping along the way to shake hands with throngs of well wishers jamming the streets.
"I join in the hope that when my time as your President has ended, people might say this about our Nation: that we had remembered the words of Micah and renewed our search for humility, mercy and justice," said Carter in his inaugural address.
In 1981, in his first inaugural address, President Reagan declared that the country must reduce its national debt and balance the budget. He announced his goal of "the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth."
In 1989, George W. Bush's father, in his inaugural address, promised his administration's commitment to "the homeless, lost and roaming ... the children who have nothing, no love, no normalcy" and said, in no uncertain terms: "We have a deficit to bring down."
In his first inaugural address in 1993, Bill Clinton urged us to focus on "the force and courage to reinvent America," pointing to an economy that, while still unrivaled in prosperity, was "weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality and deep divisions among our people."
Just four years ago, in his first inaugural address, George W. Bush acknowledged "the ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep it seems we share a continent, but not a country."
Then came 9-11 and a true test of freedom. In four years, this president has taken to hiding from reality, from the people of his country, from accountability, from the world at large, cowering behind the cloak of a freedom that exists largely in words. To borrow a phrase from George Will, this is unworthy.