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On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush will become the 43rd President of the United States. His inauguration ends a one of the longest and most controversial elections in U.S. history.
Bush also comes to power at a time when the American public voted in a Senate evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The unprecedented aspects of the Bush presidency challenge historians when looking to the past for lessons on how this new leader might handle current and future challenges.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says this election almost defies history. "Usually you can go back and say here is a situation which a president has done this or in which the country has been in this kind of crisis, and there is just no frame for this," he said on the NewsHour.
How the 50-50 Senate will affect Bush's Cabinet appointment confirmations and agenda, only time will tell. But there are parallels. When Dwight Eisenhower became president, the government was deeply divided; the Republicans had the White House and the two Houses of Congress, but lost them during Eisenhower's tenure. To overcome partisan gridlock, Eisenhower met with the head of the Senate and the head of the House every week. They sat down in the White House and looked for areas of agreement.
The only other son of a president to win back his father's office, John Quincy Adams, was also inaugurated amid controversy. Adams, the candidate of the North, fell behind Gen. Andrew Jackson in both popular and electoral votes, but no candidate won a majority of electoral votes. The election was decided among the top three by the House of Representatives.
Jackson and his angry followers charged that a "corrupt bargain" had taken place and immediately began their campaign to wrest the presidency from Adams in 1828.
Dealing with partisan anger will be one of Bush's primary tasks if he wants to get things done in Washington. Historian Richard Norton Smith points out that after the anger and pessimism of Nixon's resignation, President Ford attempted to heal the nation with a string of symbolic actions. He invited the AFL-CIO and the Congressional Black Caucus to the White House. For his swearing in, he told the Marine band to play the Michigan fight song (Ford was the star of the Michigan football team) instead of Hail to the Chief. Ford said he wanted to replace some of the trappings of an "imperial" presidency.
"(Ford) was an accidental president. He was an unelected president -- but as long or short as his presidency was he was going to try to make it a time of healing," Smith said on the NewsHour.
As President Bush steps up to the podium and takes the oath of office, The Online NewsHour invites you to step up and ask our panel of historians your questions about how the past informs the Bush presidency. What are the lessons for both the president and the public? Who handled similar situations well, and who fell victim to pitfalls we should be on the look out for?
Our guests are NewsHour regular and presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton-Smith, director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library.