I have finally read the complete text of our 43rd President’s Second Inaugural Address. Although I had not seen the ceremony on television, I had tried to read the speech a couple of times the day after but found it impossible to penetrate the fog of glitter that enveloped his words. I was put off, I think, by the gnawing conviction that I must be reading the valedictory speech of some high school senior. The words were highfalutin, the themes were lofty, and the concoction bore no relation to the world around us. Each paragraph vanished in my mind as I tried the next. So I gave up.
But so much has been said about the speech ever since — extolling it, mocking it, revising it — that I thought it worth trying again. I have now watched a video of the address, and I have now read the words with, I think, some care. The address is fraudulent. It is crafted out of a Bush world where words trample truth and time. We should treat the speech with contempt.
A flurry of comedy came after the speech. White House aides spent the next few days explaining to Washington correspondents that the president really didn’t mean what he sort of said. The President, they assured the press, is not going to send troops around the world to pick off petty tyrants. Nor is he going to kick Russian President Putin or Chinese leaders in the balls whenever he sees them. The interpreters kept underlining the place in the speech where the President talked about worldwide liberty as “the concentrated work of generations.” Our grandchildren would do the picking and kicking.
The President soon joined the revisionists at his own news conference. This prompted Hanna Rosin to write a very funny essay in the Washington Post imagining other famous speeches revised afterwards by their creators. “We did talk,” Moses tells his flock. “But the Lord our God...did not say whether you had to follow one or five or all ten. He could have meant it more like a list of suggestions.” “No one needs to go turning over their inheritance to the meek tomorrow morning,” Christ explains. “This is a generational process, not the work of a couple of years.” Even Patrick Henry backs down. “Liberty or death are just two choices I happened to mention,” he says, “but of course there are others.”
The speech has a simple thesis. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” said President Bush. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” As a corollary to this thesis, the President goes on, “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” In short, we will support democracy and liberty in this world because democracies, unlike tyrannies, are peaceful and promoters of peace.
I’m sure that his thesis is often true. Democracies do tend to be less warlike than tyrannies. Chamberlain, unlike Hitler, was a man of peace. But history does reveal a number of warmongering democracies: Britain and France in the Scramble for Africa, the United States in 1898, Serbia in the 1990s. We do not, however, have to delve deeply into history or far afield to come up with the most depressing example. After all, it was our own democracy — Bush’s sweet land of liberty, the nation that Bush insists will mold the rest of the world into democratic shape — that invaded Iraq and plunged it into war. Bush, in fact, led us into war by bamboozling us with his manipulation of our most democratic institutions like the press and the Congress.
But Iraq is not mentioned at all in the speech. At most, there is an allusion when he talks about our country accepting “obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon.” There is no reason to mention Iraq, for Bush’s Second Inaugural Address is really an ex post facto speech. It is written as if the invasion of Iraq has not yet taken place. It is written as if all Bush’s discredited reasons for his war — the weapons of mass destruction, the ties to Al Qaeda — had never been drummed into us. It is written as if Bush’s sole and glorious reason for war was to rid the world of a terrible tyrant and thus spur on democracy. It’s as if the Second Inaugural Address is really the First Inaugural Address.
If a movie producer makes an adulatory biography of Bush some distant day, I am sure the screen writer will have the hero proclaim the precious phrases of the Second Inaugural Address before he leads his men into battle against Saddam Hussein. Without that poetic license, a movie, at least an heroic movie, would make no sense.
Some pundits have likened the speech to the Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy. But the comparison is unwarranted. The Kennedy speech, with its wonderful cadences, is rooted in the Cold War. The tone is bellicose. I wince whenever I reread his admonition to the world: “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 success of liberty.” That kind of toughness led us into Viet Nam.
But the address is most memorable for his call to service: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That call touched the heart of many young Americans who flocked to his newly created Peace Corps to work in the Third World easing poverty and illness while burnishing the image of America. Whether his rhythmic phrases troubled or excited you, the Kennedy Inaugural Address reflected the reality of its moment in history.
The Bush Inaugural Address of 2005, on the other hand, is an attempt to cheat history. It is largely irrelevant except as an insight into the muddled mind of a president.