Bush’s farewell speech

I missed the broadcast of President Bush’s farewell address last week. The address reads like a retrospective State of the Union address. Indeed, it reads a bit like Bush’s last State of the Union address. By virtue of its relative brevity and limitation to self-proclaimed accomplishments, the farewell address achieved more focus than Bush’s last State of the Union.

In the first half of the 2008 State of the Union, Bush brought together a hodgepodge of disconnected themes and proposals. The proposals rapidly whizzed by: earmarks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, No Child Left Behind, the Doha Round, clean energy technology, greenhouse gases, global climate change, increasing government funding for science, the prohibition of cloning, the confirmation of judges, charitable choice.

In the second half of the State of the Union, Bush took justifiable pride in the surge/counterinsurgency strategy that had produced incredible progress on the battlefield in the course of a year. In an act of magnanimity that his opponents will never reciprocate, he confined his derogation of the defeatists in the chamber with him (including then-Senator Obama) to a single sentence: “When we met last year, many said containing the violence was impossible.” In year seven of the war against the United States, however, President Bush could not quite bring himself to name the enemy. They remained “terrorists” who agree with us that “[i]n the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny.”

North Korea went unmentioned. The Irananian regime was mentioned, but I read his message to the mullahs as: “I have thrown in the towel.” Bush also promoted his efforts to create the framework for a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. Bush asserted that “Palestinians have elected a president who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel.” Perhaps this would have better gone unmentioned in the State of the Union. All went unmentioned in the farewell address.

Bush concluded his 2008 State of the Union speech with an allusion to the Constitutional Convention and its handiwork. The president attributed America’s greatness not to its government, but rather to the spirit and determination of the American people: “By trusting the people, our Founders wagered that a great and noble nation could be built on the liberty that resides in the hearts of all men and women.” I reflected at the time that If there is something distinctive in the spirit and determination of the American people, perhaps not all people can similarly be trusted with the rigors of free government. President Bush invoked a universal truth while paying tribute to the virtue of a particular people.

To some extent Bush’s farewell speech reversed the order of subjects. Whereas he emphasized domestic policy in the first half of his State of the Union, he emphasized the response to 9/11 in the first half of his farewell. He led into his discussion of 9/11 with a reference to the constitutional transition of power and a gracious tribute to his successor:

Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land. This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole Nation. And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-elect Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two beautiful girls.

Bush then vividly evoked 9/11:

This evening, my thoughts return to the first night I addressed you from this house – September 11, 2001. That morning, terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives in the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor. I remember standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center three days later, surrounded by rescuers who had been working around the clock. I remember talking to brave souls who charged through smoke-filled corridors at the Pentagon and to husbands and wives whose loved ones became heroes aboard Flight 93. I remember Arlene Howard, who gave me her fallen son’s police shield as a reminder of all that was lost. And I still carry his badge.

As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before Nine-Eleven. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our Nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.

He briefly reviewed the actions he has undertaken to keep us safe, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He acknowledged opposition, but called on the record to speak on his behalf: “There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.”

Bush then paid tribute to the armed forces and described the efforts in which he has directed them:

The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder. The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.

Bush supplied slightly more specificity with his description of the enemy here than in his last State of the Union, but not much. Again, he insisted that the preservation of American liberty required its universalization:

This is the belief [“the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God”] that gave birth to our Nation. And in the long run, advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens. When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror. When people have hope in the future, they will not cede their lives to violence and extremism. So around the world, America is promoting human liberty, human rights, and human dignity. We are standing with dissidents and young democracies, providing AIDS medicine to bring dying patients back to life, and sparing mothers and babies from malaria. And this great republic born alone in liberty is leading the world toward a new age when freedom belongs to all nations.

At the end of President Bush’s first term, Charles Kesler reflected on Bush’s problematic invocation of the human heart in support of free government. The constitutional system of limited government reflects both trust and distrust of the people. If the founders “trusted the people,” why did they limit the power of the people to express their will through the government?

Is it true that “[w}hen people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror”? In Federalist No. 9, Publius professed a different reading of history:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.

Publius found the source of tyranny in human nature. Discussing the tendency of partisan division to destroy democracy, Publius sought to remedy the “violence of faction.” In Federalist No. 10, Publius observes:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

In seeking to warn Americans against the dangers of isolationism, President Bush goes too far in the other direction. Yet his imprudence in this respect is almost entirely verbal. His policy and his actions in defense of the United States are properly justified more narrowly on the ground of American self-interest and self-preservation. As we prepare for the Age of Obama, we would do well to seek once again to learn what the Founders have to teach us.

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