Inaugural Address Post-Mortem

Atlantic Unbound | January 21, 2005

Fallows@large | by James Fallows

Inaugural Address Post-Mortem

An analysis of President Bush's "startling" speech.


T his 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:

  • Just about one minute into the speech, Bush put a stiletto right into Bill Clinton. The two of them had seemed to be warming to each other. Bush was flattering to Clinton when unveiling the Clinton portrait in the White House last year, and early this year he paired him with the elder George Bush as tsunami-relief emissaries. But right off the bat in today's speech Bush said:
    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.

  • The speech's beginning-to-end emphasis on "freedom" as the American mission was, as a matter of rhetoric, eloquent and coherent. But it should be seen as the most sweeping and most highly abstract presentation yet of what is often disparagingly called the "neo-con world view." In the 1990s, the main tenet of this position was that unstable, oppressive regimes in the Middle East would be long-term sources of trouble and terrorism—and that therefore they must be cleaned up. Immediately after 9/11, it shifted to the urgent need to avert a WMD threat from Iraq. By 2002, the Administration had promulgated its new doctrine of "preventive" war. Over the last year, the argument for regime-change in Iraq and elsewhere has evolved into something like the case the President presented today: that until more nations are democratic, our nation will not be safe. Today's speech presented that case in so lofty a form that it did not even contain the word "Iraq."
  • 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."

  • Because it was so much like a campaign speech, the address contained numerous "Hey, wait a minute!" moments for anyone who didn't start out on the President's side. "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities." Hey, wait a minute! Isn't absence of the "rule of law" at Guantanamo and in the "torture memos" the main item on Europeans' list of complaints about the Administration? "Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies. The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies' defeat." Hey, wait a minute—these same Europeans would say—you mean, if we're not with you on any detail, we're doing the terrorists' work? "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." Hey, wait a minute! What about all the dissident-jailing, women-oppressing regimes that are our allies right now?
  • The speech actually made one or two allusions to the "other side's" symbols and heroes. For instance, praise for the era "when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner 'Freedom Now.'" And it included a list of important spiritual sources of American strength, which started with "the truths of Sinai [and] the Sermon on the Mount" but—whew!—then mentioned "the words of the Koran." But there were more, and more varied, signals to the "community of faith" that has largely supported the President. ("History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty," among many others.)
  • Most impressive yet strange allusion: "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well—a fire in the minds of men." On the good side: a reference to James Billington's book by that name, about the intellectual and spiritual origins of the American Revolution. Strange aspect: the phrase itself comes from Dostoevsky's The Possessed.
  • Domestic agenda: one brief marker for further discussion of Social Security, putting it in the context of the overall struggle for freedom. "This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time." This was probably useful for supporters, if unlikely to sway any opponents. And then there were two subtler but clear reminders of the President's stands against abortion and same-sex marriage. (About abortion: "Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another, and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth." To my hearing, this line received the most enthusiastic applause in the speech. About marriage: "Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before—ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever." Trust me, this sentence was about the Defense of Marriage Act.)
  • Final reading assignment: it's worth taking a few minutes to read this speech side-by-side with John Kennedy's venerated inaugural address. [see next post] 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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