This was a startling inaugural address. The surprise was not its style or delivery. Through his first term, George W. Bush has turned himself into an accomplished formal speaker. He will apparently never be good at answering questions, and his off-the-cuff speech works well only when he is rallying supportive groups, as he did at campaign stops. But he has learned to sound effective and thoughtful when delivering a big-occasion speech from a podium. (Ronald Reagan knew how to do this not because he had been an actor but because of his years as a broadcast announcer. Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush never really mastered the art. Bill Clinton was good at formal speeches, but better when extemporizing, even on formal occasions.) It is hard to imagine that in his normal life, President Bush ever utters sentences like "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation" or "Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another." But, again through practice, he sounds deliberate rather than stilted when saying them in a speech.
As a piece of writing the speech was skillful, which is also no surprise. Since at least the time of his eloquent post-9/11 address to Congress on September 20, 2001, Bush has shown that he can tell the difference between good and bad prose—or at least that he has the sense not to let his writers' work be clotted-up or muddied. Speechwriters naturally elbow to be given credit—or to avoid blame—for particular speeches, but really the responsibility for the good and bad in presidential oratory belongs with the President. (Similarly, success or defeat in a campaign always depends more on the candidate than on any pollster or adviser.) An American President can order up any kind of speech he wants; it is to Bush's credit that he knows sentence-by-sentence clarity when he hears it.
So what was startling about the speech? It was how very unsurprising the contents were. There is nothing in this speech the President could not have said when speaking at the Republican Convention last summer. There was nothing he could not have said in last year's State of the Union address. There was nothing that indicated a departure from, or even a refinement of, the path of the past four years. Most strikingly of all, there was not a word designed to attract, show empathy with, or conciliate people in America or overseas who did not already support the President and his policies. Second terms are often rocky times for re-elected presidents—Nixon with Watergate, Reagan with Iran-Contra, Clinton with Monica—but most at least try to relaunch or reposition their Administrations for the second four years. Since the election, there has been Washington buzz to the effect that President Bush might try to reposition himself as the "peacemaker President," or the Great Conciliator domestically. Based on this speech, that's not what he has in mind.
What's the evidence for judging the speech this way? Here are a number of clues:
For a half 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.
Years of repose! Years of sabbatical! Let's not get into the Richard Clarke-style argument about which Administration—Clinton's, or Bush's before 9/11—actually reacted more alertly to warnings about al-Qaeda. The point for the moment is the calculated nature of the insult Bush was delivering to his predecessor.
Bonus point: with "years of sabbatical," Bush was alluding to Biblical cycles, not the modern academic calendar. In this speech as in so many before, he has brilliantly used religiously derived turns of phrase to signal that part of his own belief and outlook, without saying anything his opponents could seize upon or perhaps even notice. Later in this speech: "I have asked patience in the hard task of securing America, which you have granted in good measure." The place you're mostly likely to encounter the phrase "granted in good measure" is in a Bible reading.
It is hard to find anything in this presentation that Woodrow Wilson would have disagreed with. It is also hard to identify any part that reflects course-correction, learning from experience, or any acknowledgement whatsoever that the Administration has ever taken a wrong step. Closest thing to a recognition that idealistic plans can go awry: "America's influence is not unlimited." But that is only the first part of a sentence that ends this way: "... but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."
Final reading assignment: it's worth taking a few minutes to read this speech side-by-side with John Kennedy's venerated inaugural address. In their central theme, the two speeches are surprisingly similar. Bush's is half again as long as Kennedy's—2000-plus words, versus about 1350—and to that extent windier, but sentence by sentence each is well composed. The difference, in my view, is that Kennedy's sounds as if it comes from a man with a tragic imagination, while Bush's sounds ... like something else. Read them both and see for yourself.
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