President-elect George W. Bush promised Wednesday night to unite a deeply divided nation as he accepted the reins of the presidency after one of the most bitterly fought races for the White House in modern history.
The son of a former president sounded a theme of optimism in his televised address to the nation and said he would “seize this moment” in history and rise above partisan politics to govern as the nation’s 43rd president.
“Our nation must rise above a house divided,” Bush said. “Americans share hopes and goals and values, far more important than any political disagreements. Republicans want what’s best for our nation and so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, not our hopes. I know Americans want reconciliation and unity.”
Vice President Al Gore effectively delivered the office to Bush in a concession speech earlier in the evening, ending a tumultuous five-week battle, a political contest that ultimately ended with an unprecedented legal fight. It sets the stage for a difficult transition to the nation’s highest post for Bush, political experts say, because he does not enter office with a clear mandate.
A Confident, Prayerful Bush
Bush strode confidently into a Texas legislative chamber he has come to know well and that he hopes will serve as a model for how Republicans and Democrats can work together in Washington. He seemed clearly pleased to be introduced by Texas’ top elected Democrat, House Speaker Pete Laney.
Bush — his wife, Laura, beaming as she looked on — acknowledged that he would face difficulties with the divisions among the nation’s leaders, but said he was optimistic about working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He was surrounded by his family and a bipartisan group of Texas legislators as he spoke to the nation at 10 p.m. ET.
“Here, in a place where Democrats have the majority, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent,” said Bush, who spoke slowly and methodically, as he read the television prompter cueing his speech. “We had spirited disagreements, and in the end, we found constructive consensus. It is an experience I will always carry with me, and an example, I will always follow.”
He promised, however, to work with both parties to make good on his election campaign policies to improve schools, save Social Security and strengthen Medicare. He also said he would give Americans “the broad, fair and fiscally responsible tax relief they deserve.”
Throughout his speech, he thanked many and offered prayers.
Bush announced he was running for the nation’s highest office on June 12, 1999, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. From the beginning, Bush positioned himself as a folksy, moderate Republican from Texas, a leader who could reach out to both sides of the political aisle.
He promised tonight to bring that conciliatory fashion to Washington, and though political experts believe he will have difficulties mending long-held political divides in a post-Clinton era, Bush will for the first time since former President Eisenhower begin office with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Bush’s presidency also will mark a milestone in American history: It will be the second time that a son has followed his father’s footsteps into the White House. The previous pair was John Adams, the nation’s second president, and his son John Quincy Adams, the sixth commander in chief. George W’s father lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton in 1992.
Gore Promises to Help Bush Heal Nation
Gore officially withdrew from the presidential race tonight, saying he fought hard in pressing for the recounts of tens of thousands of disputed ballots in Florida. He urged the nation to now unite behind Bush.
Gore became the fourth candidate in American history — the first since 1888 — to win the popular vote, but lose the presidency.
The two men agreed to meet next week to discuss ways in which they can work together to heal the divides in the nation after the prolonged election dispute.
“Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road,” Gore said. “Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.”
His speech comes less than a day after the nation’s highest court dealt the vice president a lethal blow, all but assuring Bush the presidency by reversing a Florida Supreme Court decision that had ordered a recount of the disputed ballots.
Gore asked the nation to respect the high court ruling, but he made it clear that he was not pleased with the court’s decision.
“Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken,” Gore said. “Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it.”
Until tonight, Bush and Gore had not spoken since Election Night, when the vice president first called to offer a concession, then phoned back to retract it as the outcome of Florida’s vote grew uncertain.
With such a tiny margin of victory in Florida — 537 votes, according to the state’s certified tally — and as the loser of the popular vote, some politicians say Bush faces an uphill battle in trying to unite a nation clearly divided along partisan lines.
The bitterly divided 5-4 Supreme Court ruling, with five conservative justices effectively handing the presidency to Bush, will only contribute to the division in the country, some Democrats said.
“Unfortunately, this splintered decision and its unprecedented result will do nothing to heal the deep divide separating the American people,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “At this time when so many of our government institutions are being tested, the Senate now must serve as the conscience of the nation.”
Even some Republicans admitted Bush has a tough task ahead of him in governing in the wake of the messy election.
“There’s no doubt that Gov. Bush is coming in under difficult circumstances. It will be a test of his leadership to see if he can unite the country,” said Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill. Playing down Bush’s potential problems in office, other Republicans say the nation now knows the rightful winner of the presidential race.
“It is precisely known which candidate has won a majority of the whole number of electors and the presidency,” said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “I am certain that all Americans, with wisdom and understanding, embrace the new president as our rightful and legitimate national leader chosen under the rule of law.”
ABCNEWS.com’s Geraldine Sealey and ABCNEWS’ Josh Gerstein and Tamara Lipper in Belfast, Terry Moran in Washington and The Associated Press contributed to this report.