Bush’s Second Inaugural Address and Its (Dis)Contents

Joseph M. Knippenberg

January 1, 2005

I have a confession to make. I liked President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address and even found parts of it moving. It was, I thought, carefully crafted to articulate a vision of what it means to be an American and what America means to the world. The President laid out an ambitious but nonetheless plausible agenda in both the foreign and domestic arenas, one that challenges us to live up to our principles and our promises.

Roughly two-thirds of the speech focused on foreign affairs, purporting to reconcile the oft-noted tension between realism and idealism in American foreign policy. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” the President asserted. Our ideals, he affirmed, have remained constant since the time of our Founding; they are “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” But while our interests haven’t always followed our ideals, recent events have taught us that it is now unrealistic for them not to: “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”

For Bush, this line of argument is not altogether new. He has long asserted that freedom is “God’s gift to humanity.” What is different, I think, is his assertion of the scope of America’s ideals and interests and his acknowledgement of great flexibility in their promotion. Stated another way, this is a most statesmanlike affirmation of principle and prudence.

And there is also a very carefully nuanced “theology of history,” affirming “a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty,” but also acknowledging that “it is human choices that move events” and that “[h]istory has an ebb and flow of justice.” The responsibility rests on us, not as God’s chosen nation, but as creatures of the Almighty, to make good use of the freedom God has given us and everyone else. “From the viewpoint of centuries, the questions that come to us are narrowed and few. Did our generation advance the cause of freedom? And did our character bring credit to that cause?” We must be concerned not only with the external effects of our actions, but with the character that produced them.

These are morally and intellectually sophisticated claims that ought to (but of course will not) win approbation in philosophy and theology departments across the country.

We will, the President says, “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” but not “primarily” by force of arms. “Our goal… is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” In so doing, our “influence is not unlimited,” but it “is considerable.” We can call attention across the world to the difference between “oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.” And we’ll make it clear that “success in our relations” requires the decent treatment of one’s citizens, not as a grudging diplomatic concession on the eve of a presidential visit, nor as a matter of governmental grace or largesse, but as the fruit of a policy whose purpose is to encourage the flourishing of an independent civil society whose institutions undergird political freedom. In other words, America will stand with the oppressed, call attention to indigenous democratic reformers, admonish “the rulers of outlaw regimes” that their injustice cannot stand, and encourage and support those of our authoritarian friends who are moving, however gingerly, down the paths of democratization and liberalization.

Freedom will be the lodestar of our policy, but not in a ham-handed and merely preachy Carteresque way. There will be a lot of talk, but not just talk. There will be a lot of action, but not just military action. Embassies across the world will be busy maintaining lines of communication with the local democratizers and other representatives of “civil society.”

Also important to note in all this is that President Bush does not have a “one size fits all” conception of how democracy should look. Minorities must be protected and the rule of law upheld, but, beyond that, “the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own.”

Of course, when it comes to the shape of democracy, the President noted as well that we have some work to do of our own. “America’s ideal of freedom” (a thrice-repeated invocation) requires the spread of “the ownership society” so that each of us can be “an agent of his or her own destiny.” But self-government also requires “the governing of the self,” the capacity for which is “built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.” And if these “communitarian” foundations of self-government aren’t clear enough, the President proceeds to assert that “liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love.”

The concern with the character here brings us back to our international mission: “Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon.” Without self-government, there is no sense of honor. Without self-government, mere self-interest can speak hypocritically in the accents of principle. Without self-government, friends are abandoned and enemies embraced when the winds or whims change.

William Safire, who should know, puts this speech in his “top five” of twenty second inaugural addresses. “As oratory,” Slate’s Chris Suellentrop judged, “this was a marvelous speech, an inspiring statement of the universality of American values.” John F. Harris of the Washington Post said that the speech contained “some of the most expansive and lyrical language Bush has summoned.” John Podhoretz of the New York Post called it a “rhetorical knockout” that will “solidify the reputation of Bush scribe Michael Gerson as the most important crafter of presidential words in the modern era.” Jules Witcover of the Baltimore Sun somewhat more grudgingly conceded that Bush displayed “an eloquence seldom heard from him.” Peggy Noonan, perhaps just a bit concerned for her own status as the legendary conservative wordsmith, was more than mildly critical. While conceding that there were moments of eloquence in the speech, she focused on what she feared was the White House’s “mission inebriation,” which produced overweening promises regarding “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” and bold claims that “we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.” “One wonders,” she tartly observed, “if they shouldn’t ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get more securely grounded.”

I can indeed imagine that folks on both ends of the political spectrum are troubled by the President’s stated ambitions, however modulated they are in practice. At National Review Online, Peter Robinson argued that “the speech was in no way that of a conservative. To the contrary. It amounted to a thoroughgoing exaltation of the state.” On the Left, E. J. Dionne (who else?) worried, “If the real meaning of the president’s words is that there are more Iraqs in our future, many Americans who share the president’s love of freedom will say no. Stirring words, alas, cannot mask a flawed policy.”

Most liberals swayed between assertions of realism and promises to hold the President to his idealistic promises. Thus Todd Purdum of the New York Times quotes Clintonista James Steinberg to this effect: “The objective is so sweeping that from here on in, every action of ours that falls short of the unequivocal commitment to freedom and to promoting the cause of freedom is going to be judged against the standard of ’You said you were going to do this.’” Chris Suellentrop seconds that emotion: “[R]ather than criticizing Bush’s speech, Democrats should nod vigorously and then hold him to it.” John F. Harris gave Clinton national security advisor Sandy Berger a moment in the sun: “Bush has set ’the right lodestar’ for U.S. policy in celebrating democracy,” but in practice things are going to get complicated, as we need interlocutors who do not live up to our ideals in order to pressure adversaries who are worse still.

Let me put it this way: liberals are going to have to figure out whether they wish to criticize President Bush now or later. If they criticize him now for being too idealistic, it will be difficult to hold him accountable for supposedly compromising his vision later on. If they embrace the vision now, they have a standard for accountability later.

But as I suggested earlier, the President’s vision is both principled and prudent. He recognizes—and affirms for those who (unlike E. J. Dionne) have ears to hear—that freedom must bubble up from within states, that much (though not all) of what we can do amounts to exhortation and encouragement. America’s power is considerable, but not unlimited. America’s patience is considerable, but not unlimited. Most importantly, if you take seriously the claim that freedom must be chosen and that it depends upon the character of the chooser, then the President’s domestic agenda, which focuses on the material and cultural conditions of self-government and self-government at home, looms much larger. People raised in the land of Bush’s “ideal of freedom” will “bear any burden” and “pay any price” to assert and maintain their own freedom and generously share their wealth with others. Democrats who choose to hold President Bush to the lofty ideals he shares with his Democratic predecessors—Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy—will have to figure out how to finesse the domestic dimensions of his (and their) “missionary zeal.” Can they exalt our responsibilities abroad while exalting choice at home?

Liberal Democratic realism is at least a little more consistent, if not at all inspiring. We can be offered a vision of becoming European, gracefully declining into irrelevance and hoping that our adversaries don’t notice the hollowness of our responses when they threaten our material interests.

William Safire was right. This was a great speech. Bush was right on theory, right on policy (broadly understood, of course), and right on politics. At the moment, the Democratic position seems almost untenable. Only Jimmy Smits can save them now.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.