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Governor strikes a delicate balance

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 8, 2003

The tone of Gov. Jeb Bush's second inaugural address Tuesday was striking in its spirituality. It was not lip service, either -- not rah-rah, God-and-country stuff -- but deeper, more introspective.

How many governors have used their inaugural to touch on our mortality? Bush declared that our lives are given to us "wholly unearned." Faith sustains us through our darkest days, even to the end: "In our final darkness, it will bring us light."

Although Bush did speak briefly about his first-term policies, especially holding public schools "accountable" with standardized tests, the thrust of his 15-minute address dealt with creating a more caring society.

"While I am the one who takes this oath today," Bush said, "when we leave this place, your responsibility is as sacred as mine: Through our example and our deeds we should strive to shape our society through kindness and caring.

"In our businesses, we should give moms and dads time to be parents with their children. In our hectic daily lives, we should fiercely guard a time for selflessly helping the most vulnerable and needy.

"In our most private moments alone, we should reflect on our unearned gifts and rededicate our lives to those around us. In a thousand ways we can be more accepting, more giving, more compassionate."

Although the governor never mentioned it explicitly, no one could have failed to notice his daughter Noelle standing behind him with her two brothers, freed for one day from her court-ordered drug treatment program.

Neither could anyone fail to be struck by Bush's own personal declaration:

"You should know I have rededicated myself to being a better father and husband. Looking today at the faces of my wife and children, all three of them, I realize that any sense of fulfillment I have from this event is meaningless unless they, too, can find fulfillment in their lives."

Taken with Bush's other recent statements about stronger families, Tuesday's speech suggests that building a better society -- albeit through the efforts of the private sector, not government -- will be an even bigger theme of his second term.

This would be a logical evolution.

In Bush's first term, he and a Republican-run Legislature pushed through a monumental agenda of governmental changes: School testing and vouchers. Reducing civil service. Ending affirmative action. Killing the old Board of Regents. Big tax cuts. Gaining more power over judicial appointments.

So what now?

What's now is that state government as we know it cannot be sustained. The "caseload," as human need is described, grows faster than tax dollars. We have a "budget crisis" of several billions of dollars, although in the conservative view, it more accurately is a caseload crisis. In that context, reducing "demand" by strengthening society makes sense.

I am uncomfortable with too much religion in politics. We have hired Bush to run Caesar's world, after all. But here, I think he strikes the right tone, invoking an ecumenical hope and faith for a better future. Hope is not the exclusive province of religion.

Still, if the governor does expand our discussion about improving society through private effort, there ought to be cautions:

(1) It should be done without a breach between church and state. While the governor may have a bully pulpit to urge societal change, his government is in charge of doing its job, no more.

(2) The Legislature must not try to compel change by law, as the liberals tried and failed. Ordering people to behave a certain way will not change their hearts, and offends freedom.

(3) No one should equate any specific government policy with a higher morality. It may be that the Almighty wants us to treat each other better. That does not necessarily translate into divine support for, say, tax cuts.

The governor has set his sights for a better world just as high as any dewy-eyed, bleeding-heart liberal ever did. I disagree with several of his most prized policies. But few leaders have made a more sincere case for a true, communitarian conservatism.

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