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?
Take this dazzling passage, which comes right after the
introductory formalities, and thus sets the tone for everything
that is to follow:
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.
Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.
This is a level of literary power that can only be reached by a writer in total command of his material and absolutely faithful to its own inner demands.
SO MUCH, then, for the charges against the speech as a piece of writing: they are no less ridiculous than those the Chicago Times hurled against the “literary construction” of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. But making itself even more ridiculous, the Chicago Times added that “in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp,” Lincoln’s speech was also “slip shod, loose-jointed, and puerile.” In my opinion, the analogous charges that have been made against the substance of Bush’s Second Inaugural are — and will in time be seen — as equally preposterous.
Let me begin with the least credible of these charges — that there is, as the headline of Peggy Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal put it, “way too much God” in the speech. I for one — but not by any means I alone — was taken aback to see this criticism coming from Peggy Noonan, who has never previously been notable for complaining about expressions of religious faith in the public square. Be that as it may, by my count there are five references to God here (one of them within a quote from Lincoln), as compared with eight, plus several extended citations from the Bible, in Lincoln’s own Second Inaugural (which, interestingly, was itself attacked by the New York World for “abandoning all pretense of statesmanship” and taking “refuge in piety”). I have not gone through all the other inaugural addresses in American history, but I would guess that they all contain at least as many invocations of God as Bush’s did. (John F. Kennedy’s has four, plus a verse from the prophet Isaiah.) Measured by what standard, then, is there “way too much” in Bush’s Second Inaugural?
Another frequently registered objection is that the speech overreaches — that in promising to end tyranny everywhere in the world it sets forth a goal which is far too ambitious and uses language which is far too universalist. This is a more serious criticism, and yet, as with the one about too much God, it is hard to see in what way Bush is any more ambitious and universalist than his major 20th-century predecessors, either in their own Inaugural Addresses or in speeches on other crucially important occasions.
The most obvious example is Woodrow Wilson, who promised to
“make the world safe for democracy” by sending Americans to fight
in World War I. True, the horrors and then the disillusioning
aftermath of that war helped to discredit Wilson’s slogan. But that
did not prevent Franklin D. Roosevelt, the next Democrat to win the
presidency, from going even further in preparing the nation for an
eventual entry into World War II:
We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression —everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want… — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear… — anywhere in the world.
It all began on March 12, 1947, when he appealed to Congress for
aid to Greece and Turkey, both of which, he said, were threatened
by Soviet-led “movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian
regimes.” He was, he went on, “fully aware of the broad
implications involved if the United States extends assistance to
Greece and Turkey,” and in spelling these out he enunciated the
main principle of what soon was being called the Truman
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.
Our way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual freedom, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.
The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago. The world is very different now…. And yet 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.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
that it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture…
BUT WHAT OF REPUBLICAN predecessors? There are those — and they can be found within both the old foreign-policy establishment and the conservative camp — who deny that the Bush Doctrine is true to the traditions of the Republican Party. In fact, going so far as even to deny that (as Bush and others, myself included, often claim) it builds on the legacy of Ronald Reagan, they argue that, on the contrary, it veers off onto a radically different path. No doubt it is with this argument in mind that Bush makes very sure to add an unmistakable echo of Reagan to the ghostly choir of the three Democrats he has assembled.
Here is Reagan, speaking at Westminster Abbey on June 8,
We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings…. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.
Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty - though… Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul…. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.
The rulers of outlaw regimes know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”
Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.
It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle…. No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.
YET TO DEMOSTRATE even more definitively that his own Doctrine
is rooted deep in American soil, Bush reaches not only beyond his
20th-century predecessors of both parties and back to Lincoln; he
even goes beyond Lincoln and all the way back to the Declaration of
Independence. In this he must have been inspired by Lincoln
himself, who, in maintaining that slavery was wrong, appealed over
the head of the Constitution (by which slavery was permitted) to
the Declaration of Independence (by which it was logically
I believe the declaration that “all men are created equal” is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest.
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.
When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said: “It rang as if it meant something.” In our time it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength — tested, but not weary — we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.
EVEN SO, given the relentless attacks by Democrats on the Bush Doctrine in general and on this speech in particular, it should be pointed out that the rhetoric of the three Democrats with whom this Republican President associates himself was if anything much more far-reaching in its universalism than his own. After all, Roosevelt asserted that to all human beings “everywhere in the world” no fewer than four freedoms were “essential” (even, remarkably, freedom from fear), but Bush speaks only of freedom from political and religious tyranny; and whereas Roosevelt thought he could deliver all four of these freedoms not in “a distant millennium” but “in our own time and generation,” Bush recognizes that “The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations.”
Admittedly Truman was a bit less sweeping than Roosevelt had
been before him; he did not add “everywhere” to the “free peoples”
it would be his policy to support. Still, in moving from Greece and
Turkey to “nearly every nation” in the world, he was sweeping
enough to alarm Walter Lippmann, the most admired columnist of the
day, who wrote:
A vague global policy, which sounds like the tocsin of an ideological crusade, has no limits…. Everyone everywhere will read into it his own fears and hopes…
transformed a concrete interest of the United States in a geographically defined part of the world into a moral principle of worldwide validity, to be applied regardless of the limits of American interest and power.
…is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary.
And if Bush never goes as far as Roosevelt did, and no further than Truman, he is much more restrained than Kennedy was. Certainly there is nothing in his Second Inaugural to match the overkill of Kennedy’s “pay any price, bear any burden” passage.
In short, the accusations of overreach that have been thrown at Bush’s speech simply do not stand up when we look at it in the context of the oratorical American tradition out of which it flows. But this still leaves us with the question of how we are to understand his universalist language in the context of the present political situation. How does it square with the praise he has lavished on Vladimir Putin, even though the Russian leader has reversed the progress toward democratization that his country seemed to be making after the fall of Communism? How does it fit with the soft policy he has followed toward China, whose government remains politically repressive even though its economy has become relatively free? And what about the virtual alliance he has made with the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf? In the eyes of some, cases like this expose Bush’s universalist rhetoric as empty and/or hypocritical.
YET SURELY THESE CRITICS must — or at any rate should — know that, just as the Nazis and fascists were the main and immediate target in World War II, and just as the Communists were the main and immediate target in World War III (the Cold War), so our main and immediate target in what I persist in calling World War IV is the Islamofascist terrorists and the Middle Eastern despotisms by which they are bred, sheltered, financed, and armed.
Surely, too, Bush’s critics must, or should, know that when Roosevelt held out the hope of spreading the four freedoms “everywhere in the world,” it was clear to all sides that he was challenging only the Axis powers, and not the equally totalitarian Soviet Union or any of the smaller fascist regimes in other parts of the world; nor did anyone think that his willingness to forge an alliance with Stalin meant that he was spouting empty rhetoric or being hypocritical.
Similarly, when Truman promised to come to the aid of “free peoples… resisting attempted subjugation,” and when Kennedy spoke of opposing “any foe,” everyone recognized that they were talking about the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes and parties controlled by or allied with it. Nor did anyone (not even Lippmann and Morgenthau) seriously imagine that they were preparing to dislodge every tyrant and every dictator on the face of the earth or, conversely, that this prudential limitation exposed the universalism of their language as nothing but rodomontade.
Finally — as Republican critics of Bush must or should know — their party had little if anything to say against Reagan when (in complete fidelity to the Truman Doctrine but in clear violation of his own universalist declarations) he adopted a policy of supporting authoritarian regimes that were threatened either directly or indirectly by the much worse totalitarianism of the Soviet Union.
IN TRYING TO UNDERSTAND why it has been different with Bush, we arrive at what is truly new, and genuinely controversial, about the Bush Doctrine, especially in the form it takes in the Second Inaugural. It is not the universalism or the democratizing thrust that the President highlights in this speech and for which he has been so obtusely assailed; both of these, as we have just seen, are as old as the American Republic itself and both have served as lodestars for Democratic and Republican presidents alike. It is, rather, this President’s repudiation of the longstanding “realist” policy of tolerating tyrants in the Middle East for the sake of stability, and his correlative effort to institute a new policy of “idealism” that conforms to “the great liberating tradition of this Nation.” Which — to the fury of the old foreign-policy establishment where the realist perspective still holds sway, and to the dismay of those conservatives who are skeptical about the conservative pedigree of the new policy and/or its viability — is exactly what Bush has done. As he reminds us in the Second Inaugural, because we have now extended this tradition to Afghanistan and Iraq, “tens of millions have achieved their freedom,” and millions more, he predicts, will follow suit.
It is a daring prediction, but what gives it credibility is that the words Bush has spoken and the things the United States has already achieved under the aegis of his new policy have shaken the entire region to its core.
Listen to the testimony of the Lebanese dissident Walid Jumblatt
who, only a few months earlier, had announced that “the killing of
U.S. soldiers in Iraq is legitimate and obligatory,” but who
suddenly woke up to what those U.S. soldiers had all along been
doing for the world in which he lived:
It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting [in January 2005], 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.
Those [in the Middle East] who believe in democracy and civil society are finally actors [because the invasion of Iraq] has unfrozen the Middle East, just as Napoleon’s 1798 expedition did. Elections in Iraq force the theocrats and autocrats to put democracy on the agenda, even if only to fight against us. Look, neither Napoleon nor President Bush could impregnate the region with political change. But they were able to be midwives.
Disappointed by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election and the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in last year’s polls in Egypt, some doubt the wisdom of pushing for elections in the Muslim world…. The holding of elections, however, is a clear admission that the principal basis for legitimacy is the will of the people as freely expressed through ballot boxes. In well-established democracies, this may sound trite; in Arab societies, it is a revolutionary idea.
But the elections in the Palestinian Authority and in Egypt are
not the only disappointments that have been suffered by supporters
of the Bush Doctrine, and particularly those who are most
passionate about its commitment to democratization. In some
instances (as with Iran) Bush has moved at a slower pace than these
fervent democratizers would wish and believe possible; in others
(as with Syria and Saudi Arabia) there has been temporizing whose
wisdom they question; and in still others (as with Egypt) there has
been a failure to counter setbacks as forcefully as they think
should be done. Some even accuse the President of thereby having
betrayed the very assurances he makes when he addresses himself in
the Second Inaugural directly to “the peoples of the
All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you.
Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.
Furthermore, the spillover effect of bringing our policy in the Middle East into line with “the great liberating tradition of this Nation” has begun to be felt in other regions as well. Thus, the nonviolent democratic Revolution that broke out in Georgia in 2003 and that inspired two others in the former Soviet Union (in Ukraine and then Kyrgyzstan), can be traced directly to the influence of the Bush Doctrine. We have this on the authority of the president of Georgia himself: “One thing I can tell you, Mr. President,” he said to Bush on a visit to Washington, “your freedom agenda does, indeed, work. I mean, you can see it in Georgia.” It is a development of this kind that lends weight to the universalist claim in the Second Inaugural that “we have lit… a fire in the minds of men,” and that “one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”
TO BE SURE, the count is still far from in on this grand promise, even where the Middle East alone is concerned. Or perhaps I should say especially where the Middle East is concerned, since there are those who argue that the Muslim world lacks the necessary political, social, and economic preconditions for democratization. But this line of argument ignores or downplays or simply brushes aside the astonishing progress toward democratization that has already been made both in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same line of argument also runs afoul of the judgment of Bernard Lewis, the greatest contemporary authority on the region, who tells us that it is “demonstrably absurd in historical terms.” In any case, Lewis adds, we have no choice: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.”
But even if, as I believe, Lewis is right, there is still a long and rough road ahead. It took nearly 40 years — with many reversals and missteps along the way — to defeat the Communists in World War III, and the chances are that defeating the Islamofascists in World War IV will — with its own reversals and missteps along the way — take as long or longer. It is even possible that we will lack the “patience” that Bush asks of us, and that we will desert the field before the Islamofascists and their terrorist shock troops are defeated by the tide of democratization that this President has unleashed.
Assuming, however, that we can steel ourselves to stay the course until victory is ours, it will be because in our American hearts and in our American bones we know that the President is right when he tells us in his Second Inaugural that our “vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” and that advancing the ideals that “created our Nation” is now “the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.”
The high nobility of this calling, and the incandescent words in which George W. Bush summons us to its service, are what convinces me that his Second Inaugural is one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American President.
Norman Podhoretz is the editor-at-large of Commentary and the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Norman Podhoretz Reader (Free Press). In June 2004, Mr. Podhoretz was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. 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?” The series is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
This article appeared in the November 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
Norman Podhoretz is the editor-at-large of Commentary and the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Norman Podhoretz Reader (Free Press). In June 2004, Mr. Podhoretz was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
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