Bush promise to be a 'uniter, not divider' is put to the test

AUSTIN, Texas - George W. Bush campaigned for two years as ''a uniter, not a divider.'' Now, as president-elect by the slimmest of Electoral College margins and without having won the popular vote, Bush's pledge is being put to the ultimate test.

''Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests, and I will work to earn your respect,'' Bush said in a nationally televised address to the nation Wednesday night. ''I will give it my all.''

Bush emerged the victor after a drawn-out and epic postelection legal battle that held the nation in suspense for more than five weeks - and bitterly divided it along partisan lines.

The Texas governor on Thursday was attending a morning service of worship and music at an Austin church - his first act as president-elect after his muted victory speech. ''The governor decided that he wants to start this on a message of prayer and healing,'' said Karen Hughes, a top Bush adviser.

And a formal ceremony was scheduled for Thursday as the doors to a government-run transition office were readied to be open to Bush by the General Services Administration.

Bush and Al Gore will meet next Tuesday in Washington. The president-elect received what he said was ''a gracious call'' from Gore shortly before the vice president delivered his own speech, and that the two ''agreed to do our best to heal our country after this hard-fought contest.''

The victory of Bush, 54, sends the second father-son combination to the White House in American history, following John and John Quincy Adams in the early 1800s.

Bush's father, former President George Bush, was defeated in his re-election bid in 1992 by Bill Clinton and running mate Al Gore.

Bush's victory over Gore was thus relished by longtime Bush family loyalists. But the younger Bush, called ''W'' by friends and foes alike, has said that revenge was never a factor.

''Politics is full of slights all the time. If you're the kind of person who takes the slights personally and always seeks revenge, you're going to be the most unsuccessful person in the political arena,'' Bush said in a recent interview.

But Bush's family was never far from view. Both his father and his popular mother, Barbara Bush, actively campaigned for him.

Jeb Bush, one of three younger brothers, is governor of Florida - the state whose 25 electoral votes finally provided Bush with the razor-edge margin of victory.

Bush campaign strategists initially failed to recognize Florida, which has trended Republican in recent presidential elections, as a true battleground state. That early inattention may have contributed to the closeness of the contest there.

Bush's wife, Laura, a former public school teacher and librarian, campaigned extensively with him. The couple has twin 18-year-old daughters, Jenna and Barbara, both college freshmen.

In the closing days of the campaign, Bush was thrown off stride by revelations that he had been arrested for drunken driving in 1974 while visiting his parents at their compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

He said his failure to publicly disclose the arrest was due to his desire to shield his behavior from his daughters.

Like his father, Bush is a graduate of Yale University (1968). He also holds a master's degree from Harvard University (1975).

After losing a congressional race in 1978, Bush seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in the private sector. He ran a string of generally unsuccessful companies in the oil industry then became a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team before successfully running for governor in 1994, unseating Democrat Ann Richards.

Bush disposed of the last of his financial interest in the ball club in 1998, netting roughly a $15 million profit. He put some of the proceeds into buying a 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, about a two-hour drive north of here.

The ranch has become a beloved refuge for Bush, much as the family waterfront compound in Kennebunkport had been for his father, and the younger Bush spent many days there while awaiting the final outcome in the Florida dispute.

Bush's victory came after weeks of frantic recounts, noisy protests and legal battles stretching to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He faces daunting challenges. Bush must assemble an entirely new administration in less time than any modern president, while working to heal deep political wounds.

The two-term Texas governor has always bragged about his ability to unite antagonists, citing his experience in Texas.

And, it seemed fitting that he picked the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives - a chamber controlled by Democrats - to give his first speech after rival Al Gore's concession speech effectively sealed his election victory.

''It has been home to bipartisan cooperation,'' he said of the Texas House. ''We had spirited disagreements, and in the end, we found constructive consensus.''

Then, turning the nation as a whole, Bush declared, ''Our nation must rise above a house divided.''

He was clearly mindful of the difficulty he faced.

''I wish the election weren't quite as close. I wish it were easier for people to see the results,'' he reflected a few days before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision that brought closure to the contest.

Bush did get a jump on the process, naming running mate Dick Cheney, his father's defense secretary, as head of his transition team and setting up a headquarters in McLean, Va., a Washington suburb.

He also selected Andrew Card, transportation secretary in his father's term, as his White House chief of staff.

Bush was also expected to move quickly to name a White House staff and a prospective Cabinet, with top billing going to retired Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of state.

Bush waged a $160 million campaign for the job, portraying himself as a ''compassionate conservative'' and promising to reach out to women, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities far more than other Republicans had done in the past.

He also sought to identify himself with issues that in the past had been associated with Democrats, notably education.

On Wednesday night, he reached out to Democrats in Congress to work with him on education, Social Security, Medicare and tax relief - all contentious campaign issues. ''We have discussed our differences,'' he said. ''Now it is time to find common ground.''


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