SOLOMON: Hey Kids, It's Inauguration Time!

Hey, kids, what time is it? It's inauguration time!

By accident of history, the guy in the starring role bears a passing resemblance to Howdy Doody. What's more, his V.P. partner could evoke memories of Phineas T. Bluster.

But the incoming president is no dummy -- and pundits who cast aspersions on his intelligence are missing the point. Even a puppet needs some smarts! And to a great extent, you can judge a marionette by the company he keeps.

This one has some very wily pals. They ooze with money, flex their corporate muscles, and exude certainty about how to call the shots for the nation's grandest institutions. Yet they've been scrambling to overcome some unusual barriers to authoritative control over the executive branch.

Now, it turns out that George W. Bush lost the nationwide popular vote by an even wider margin than had been reported. The final certified results: Al Gore received 539,947 more votes than Bush did.

The degree to which Bush can succeed at flaunting himself as the people's choice will largely depend on the dynamics of media coverage and the behavior of Democrats on Capitol Hill. Right now, for the most part, those Democrats seem inclined to let bygones be bygones -- signaling to journalists that they may as well do the same.

But shrugging off recent electoral history requires downplaying the series of key events that ended with five members of the U.S. Supreme Court handing the presidency to Bush. One of the questions blowing in the wind: Does it matter that many thousands of African-American voters did not get their ballots counted in Florida?

Not much -- according to all 50 Democrats in the Senate. If even one senator had joined with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others in the House who challenged Florida's 25 electoral votes, the issue would have been legally forced into the open for debate. But when push came to shove at the end of the first week of January, not a single such senator could be found.

By opting for convenient amnesia over obstinate memory, every person in the Senate avoided the risk of widespread media derision. After all, the conventional wisdom is that the national political spotlight has moved on. It's time to hail the next chief, the triumphant runner-up.

Because of the sustained uproar and bitterness that punctuated so much of what's usually a placid time in American presidential politics -- the stretch between Election Day and Inauguration Day -- the ceremonies in Washington on Jan. 20 probably take on added importance. Orchestration is the name of the media game: Each new administration works closely with many journalists to generate plenty of momentous salutes and hosannas.

Typically, at the start of a new presidency, the leaders of the major party that failed to win the White House feel that it's necessary to make an obsequious show of burying the hatchet. Hyperboles are common as politicians say things like "he is president of all the people" and "all Americans support our new president and wish him well."

We can now expect a deluge of such laughable assertions -- not only from leading lights of the Republican and Democratic parties but also from a remarkable number of journalists who feel compelled to echo that kind of prattle.

"Journalism," a modern cliche tells us, "is the first draft of history." But for most politicians, it's the draft that clearly matters most. Wielding power is about the here and now. What Americans read, hear and watch every day shapes the media terrain through which a president walks. Historians wait their turn.

Presidents are fond of equating their power with benevolent leadership. When news outlets buy into that equation, they lavish adulation on a president simply -- in effect -- for being president. In the process, they substitute mythology for journalism.

Despite the upbeat inaugural stories, underlying realities are apt to be quite grim. "There is no necessary connection between the desire to lead and the ability to lead, and even less to the ability to lead somewhere that will be to the advantage of the led," the American writer Bergen Evans observed a half-century ago. He added: "Leadership is more likely to be assumed by the aggressive than by the able, and those who scramble to the top are more often motivated by their own inner torments than by any demand for their guidance."

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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