President Bush’s inaugural address has received criticism from the usual suspects, but also from Peggy Noonan, a superb speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush I. Part of the problem is that Noonan (to paraphrase the Godfather) is not a wartime speechwriter. As I recall, she wrote the first Bush’s inaugural speech –the one that called for a kinder, gentler American, and spoke of the future as a door one simply walked through. This might have been appropriate for a nation about the go on sabbatical (as Bush said yesterday), but it wouldn’t have done in the present circumstances.
President Bush had two related purposes yesterday. The first was to explain to the country why extending freedom to places like Iraq is so important to our own well-being. The second was to inspire as many Americans as possible to embrace the sacrifices that extending freedom entails. I don’t see how Bush could have done a better job meeting the first purpose. One can agree or disagree with the president’s thesis, but I’ve never seen or heard a clearer, more powerful exposition of it.
The second purpose — inspiring rather than merely explaining — is clearly more difficult. Those most likely to be inspired are individuals who share the Bush’s core beliefs and values, which happen to have a strong religiously-based component. Fortunately for the president, a great many Americans do share them. By invoking not just freedom but also God’s will, the president maximized the inspirational power of his message. In addition, because he holds his religious beliefs so strongly, the invocation of God added the required elements of sincerity and seriousness. I should also note (as a reader reminded me) that American presidents routinely invoke God’s name in times of national peril. Thus, John Kennedy’s inaugural address contains these words:
The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
Similarly, consider this from Harry Truman’s inaugural speech:
We believe, that all men have a right to equal justice under law and equal opportunity to share in the common good. . . . We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God. From this faith we will not be moved. . . .
And here’s Franklin Roosevelt in his last inaugural address:
Our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. . . . Almighty God has . . . given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mightily blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.
Does this mean that it is wrong for Bush supporters to be concerned about the tone of the inaugural speech? Not entirely. Virtually all Bush supporters agree that promoting freedom in the world is important to our security and a good thing to do in itself. Virtually all agree, however, that there are situations in which prudence demands that we back off, even if it means permitting tyranny to flourish in a particular country. Within these boundaries of agreement exists vast territory for disagreement as to how “interventionist” we should be in general, and whether we should back off in a given situation.
In attempting, quite appropriately, to explain and inspire by connecting security to freedom to God, President Bush’s words and tone reasonably could cause many Republican listeners to believe that, going forward, he will be significantly more interventionist than they would prefer him to be. Yet, his words and tone need not be construed that way. When President Kennedy spoke of “bearing any burden,” no one expected him to bear the burden of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Kennedy proved unwilling to bear the burden necessary to topple Castro and it remains unclear how much burden he was willing to bear in Vietnam.
If Bush alarmed some of his supporters it is probably because, unlike Kennedy, he has a track record. I don’t view that track record as a reckless one, but there certainly is room for disagreement on this score. The concerns of folks like Peggy Noonan may well have more to do with what Bush has done during the past four years than with what he said yesterday.
For more on the Bush address, see the comments of Fred Barnes, Joseph Bottum, and Bill Kristol.