This essay is the third in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, “The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?”
Also in The American Spectator’s Pursuit of Liberty series: James Q. Wilson’s “American Exceptionalism,” James Kurth’s “America’s Democratization Projects Abroad, Lawrence E. Harrison’s “The Cultural Prerequisites of Freedom and Prosperity,” and Roger Scruton’s “The Nation-State and Democracy,” with more to come.
George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address remains wildly misunderestimated, misunderappreciated, and misunderstood.
GEORGE W. BUSH has been “misunderestimated” so many times that this sardonic neologism has forced its way into the American language and will forever be associated with his name. Yet never has the judgment of his performance been so wildly off the mark as in the response to his Second Inaugural Address. Naturally his political enemies were quick to deride the speech. But this time a large contingent of his conservative supporters also joined in the cacophonous chorus of denigration.
What brought all this wrath down on the Second Inaugural was the President’s decision to use it as an occasion for reaffirming and rededicating both himself and the nation to the ideas he had embraced in the wake of 9/11 and that have collectively come to be known as the Bush Doctrine. But rather than taking us step by step through its various components, as he had done in a number of previous (and equally misunderestimated) speeches, he now redoubled the provocation by subsuming them all into “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Having for my part listened with growing awe to the President as he showed how this goal grows out of the moral and spiritual imperatives of the American past, how it confronts the urgencies of the American present, and how it ensures the security of the American future, and then having confirmed my immediate reaction by repeated readings of the text, I was astonished by what the conservative commentariat had to say about the speech in the days immediately following its delivery.
Of course I knew very well that some eminent conservatives — most notably William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will — had all along been discreetly uneasy about the Bush Doctrine, and particularly the element of it he singled out for special emphasis in this speech. I was also well aware that a faction existed on the right whose most prominent member was Patrick J. Buchanan and whose view of the Bush Doctrine went beyond uneasiness into an outspoken hostility that could hardly be exceeded even by the sheer hatred pervading the left. Consequently I was not in the least surprised to find both of these groups expressing dismay over the substance of the speech. On the other hand, because they were both led by people who were very good writers themselves and who had also been capable in the past of appreciating good writing even when produced by their political opponents, I was a bit surprised by their (willful?) blindness to its literary qualities.
Even more surprising was that the same blindness had afflicted several supporters of the Bush Doctrine like David Frum, Peter Robinson, and Peggy Noonan who, as former presidential speechwriters themselves, might also have been expected to recognize literary distinction when it was staring them in the face. Yet Frum dismissed the speech as “a disappointing work” with “high fat content” that should have been reduced by careful editing; Robinson grudgingly conceded that it was “well written” and “in places actually beautiful,” but on the whole it made him “mighty nervous”; and for Noonan, too, its “moments of eloquence” were overwhelmed by “high-class boilerplate” and “over the top” rhetoric that left her “with a bad feeling and reluctant dislike.”
WITH THESE CRITICISMS IN MIND, I have just read the speech yet again, and I am more convinced than ever that it will ultimately be acclaimed as a masterpiece of American oratory, worthy of a place beside Lincoln’s Second Inaugural — which, incidentally, was also widely derided immediately after being delivered. To the New York Herald, it was “a little speech of ‘glittering generalities’ used only to fill in the program,” and the Chicago Times “did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile… in literary construction….” To us today such judgments seem puzzling, and even laughable, and so, I believe, will it some day be the case with the attacks on Bush’s Second Inaugural.
Whatever may have been true of Lincoln’s critics, those who were sour about Bush’s Second Inaugural for stylistic reasons must suddenly, and most mysteriously, have developed a tin ear for English prose. Otherwise how could they have been deaf to the exquisite rhetorical flourishes that (far from being “over the top”) never exceed the bounds of the best literary taste? How could they have failed to hear the rhythmical sureness of the language? How could they not have reverberated to the incantatory beauty of the cadences?p>Take this dazzling passage, which comes right after the introductory formalities, and thus sets the tone for everything that is to follow: br> /p>
At this second gathering, our duties are defined not by the words I use, but by the history we have seen together. For half a century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of Communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical — and then there came a day of fire.br> In its diction and pitch, “years of repose, years of sabbatical” is perfect as a lyrical gloss on “relative quiet” and as a prelude to the sudden shock of “— and then there came a day of fire.” Fire then turns out to be one of the unifying images of the speech. Here, it obviously refers to 9/11, but when the President picks it up again later in another and even more marvelous passage, he uses it to remind us that we have turned this fire back and proudly put it to exactly the opposite purpose for which it was set off against us on that terrible day:
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?