At inaugural's opening, Bush says he's 'ready to start'
Laura and George W. Bush acknowledge the crowd at the opening celebration
| WEB EXCLUSIVE
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect George W. Bush said Thursday he is "honored to serve" and "ready to start" as the nation's 43rd president, during brief remarks at the opening ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial.
"I will treat the office with care, never take it for granted and always remember to whom it belongs. The presidency does not belong to any one person, but to all of us, the American people," Bush said, as he offered his thanks to those who braved the chill in the air.
The ceremonies leading to Saturday's inauguration of Bush as the nation's 43rd president officially began Thursday afternoon with an opening celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
"Let the celebrations begin and the political wars cease," Rev. Albert Reed said in the invocation. "Bless President-elect Bush and Vice President-elect Cheney and their families."
Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, accompanied by their wives, arrived at the event at 4:30 p.m. EST. The inauguration's theme is "Celebrating America's Spirit Together," in a nod to Bush's campaign theme of being "a uniter, not a divider."
"He's a good man, a man of generous instincts and high standards," Cheney said in his introduction of the president-elect. "Yesterday he said goodbye to his home state of Texas. Let us now welcome him to Washington as the next president of the United States."
Several entertainers -- including singer Ricky Martin -- performed at the event. At the event's climax, Martin pulled the president-elect on-stage and attempted to get him to dance, and fireworks exploded overhead a few minutes later.
Bush, with singer Ricky Martin at left, shows off his footwork as the celebration draws to a close
"We're celebrating America's spirit together. This is the theme for America as well as all Americans," CNN's Larry King, emcee of the event, said as he introduced country singers Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw.
Among those in the VIP crowd were designated officials in the incoming Bush administration: Secretary of State-designee Colin Powell; Commerce Secretary-designee Don Evans; Bush's incoming chief of staff, Andrew Card; Agriculture Secretary-designee Ann Veneman; and Attorney General-designee John Ashcroft, who spent two days testifying at his at times contentious confirmation hearings. Also present was Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
Following the opening ceremony, the president-elect is slated to appear tonight at several pre-inaugural dinners scattered around Washington.
Setting a course for 'compassionate conservatism'
Hours before the festivities, Bush told Republican supporters Thursday that his campaign "set a new course for our party -- what I called compassionate conservatism."
Bush sat down Thursday for an interview with CNN on a variety of issues
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During a morning speech to members of the Republican National Committee and other supporters, Bush said he is confident the principles of compassionate conservatism, "when employed properly, will help people regardless of their party."
"It's a philosophy that's generous and inclusive," he said. "It's a philosophy and an understanding that our party must accept new faces and new voices into our ranks."
Throughout his campaign, Bush promised that as president, he would change the tone of Washington -- and the president-elect attempted to lay the groundwork for that effort Thursday morning.
"There's a lot of building going on coming down the roads here," he said of his journey into the nation's capital. "It's kind of like the building we've been doing in the course of the last campaign ...building we will continue to do with an administration that's focused on results -- positive results -- for all Americans."
Those positive results, he said, include his $1.3 trillion tax cut, and a repeal of the so-called marriage penalty and estate tax.
Earlier, Bush spoke with CNN's Candy Crowley about what he would like to accomplish as president -- specifically his efforts to bridge the apparent gap between the GOP and African American voters.
"I'm going to be fair and even-handed. I hope people have taken notice
that in my national security apparatus, for example, two of the key players are
African-Americans," Bush said, referring to Secretary of State-designee Colin
Powell and National Security Adviser-designee Condoleezza Rice.
"When people get to know my heart, and understand the goals I've set for
America pertain to everybody, I believe people will come around," he added.
Bush spent the remainder of the day at the Blair House, the historic house less than a block from the White House that often hosts presidential visitors.
Friday's events include an event with incoming first lady Laura Bush, celebrating American authors; a Hispanic "friends of Bush" event; and Cheney will host an event honoring the nation's veterans.
The inaugural balls will kick off Friday night -- and all eyes are sure to be on the much-heralded "Black Tie & Boots" gala, sponsored by the Texas State Society. The Wyoming State Society is holding a private event to honor Cheney, and the inaugural youth concert is also planned for Friday.
Prepping for the presidency
The inauguration is set for noon Saturday, and Bush said Thursday that his speech is "about ready to go." He may rehearse the 10-12 minute address with the TelePrompTer a few more times between now and when he delivers it on the East front of the Capitol, he said during an interview with Reuters.
The inaugural address, he promised, would be "to the point," calling on Americans to honor "ideals greater than ourselves."
"I'm mindful of the hopes of Americans, many of whom didn't vote for me and that's okay, that's what democracy is all about," he said.
After the protracted presidential election, the speech, Bush said, will focus on healing the nation "with a sense of passion and sincerity."
"I view this close election as an opportunity ... to be able to say we can rise above divisiveness, we can rise above the expectations of many Americans by focusing on issues that matter for the future of the country."
To craft the address, Bush read and edited drafts of the speech, his chief speech writer Mike Gerson studied past inaugural addresses and aide Karen Hughes contributed ideas.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush understands the significance of the speech, calling it the "singular beginning of his administration" and the "biggest speech" in terms of the number of people who will watch it.
While acknowledging that the inauguration would be a "dramatic" and emotional time, Bush said that he felt "at peace." But he added that he would not turn around to look at his parents during the inauguration ceremony for fear that "they may have dissolved into tears."
"There's going to be a lot of emotion there," Bush said, "So I'll be standing looking out across at all the people with umbrellas over their heads ....part of it is going to be because I will want to soak in the scene and the environment and I'm not going to want to get wrapped up in my family's emotions until after the ceremony."
CNN.com Writer Amy Herstek and CNN Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report