Bush Reinaugerates America’s Promise
January 1, 2001
In his inaugural address, President George W. Bush didn’t take long to mention that the United States began as “a slave-holding society. ” This overture to black Americans, who voted for Gore 9 to 1, demonstrated the incoming president’s desire to earn the trust of an increasingly disaffected portion of the American people. Some might think this too narrow a focus for an official who must represent all Americans, regardless of color. But Bush quickly added that slave-holding America nevertheless became “a servant of freedom. ” In so doing, the new president suggested that even a “flawed and fallible people” could find their way to a more perfect union, if only they remained guided by the “grand and enduring ideals” of the American republic.
To that end, the nation’s 43rd president pledged to “to build a single nation of justice and opportunity” and highlighted a key source of his hope: a belief in “a power larger than ourselves, Who creates us equal in His image. ” Those who would decry Bush’s political theology need only consult the Declaration of Independence. It states that all men are “created equal” and endowed “by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”–what Bush called “the inborn hope of our humanity. ” So confident were the American founders in the justice of their separation from England that they entrusted their effort to “the protection of divine providence. ”
A common understanding of these self-evident truths formed the basis of the American union. More than two centuries later, “bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, ” Bush expressed confidence that these principles “can unite and lead us onward. ” And as president, he committed himself and the nation to a four-fold task to make good on the nation’s promise “that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance. ” First, by engaging in civility instead of cynicism, citizens and politicians alike can ensure that the practice of American democracy be pleasant as well as principled.
Second, Bush lauded the courage of America as he outlined his policy priorities. Federal reform of education, Social Security, Medicare, taxation, and national defense will require some measure of courage by the new Republican administration. Moreover, Bush noted that prudent action in the near term by the president and Congress will help avoid more costly solutions in the future. Whether it’s quicker implementation of a national missile defense, lower taxes in the face of a possible recession, or student vouchers to ensure that “no child is left behind, ” Bush explained: “We must show courage in a time of blessing, by confronting problems instead of passing them on to future generations. ”
Third, the president noted that “compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government. ” No enemy of religion in the public sphere, Bush highlighted the “honored place” that religious institutions would have in putting a human face on government aid to the needy.
Last, Bush emphasized the connection between private character and the public interest. Bringing “the values of our history to the care of our times” shows his conservative approach to raising the moral tone of American society. Some argue that a politician’s call for personal responsibility is merely code for blaming the victims. Bush, however, suggests that unless each individual expects more from himself than he does from others, he becomes dependent and demoralized. True freedom follows from taking responsibility for one’s “pursuit of happiness, ” not allowing government to assume the responsibility for one’s livelihood.
In closing, President Bush remarked that “what you do is as important as anything government does. ” By seeking a good higher than mere self-interest, the citizen discovers the freedom of an ordered soul–a soul that contributes to a decent society by holding “beliefs beyond ourselves. ” Bush’s focus on the divine reminds us that America’s greatness, while achieved through human agency, derives from principles that stand outside of mere human will or tradition.
In asking all Americans to see that “His purpose is achieved in our duty” and “our duty is fulfilled in service to one another, ” our new president has appealed to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature. ” Americans of all colors and political persuasions could hardly find a more hopeful or inspiring message to unite and abide by. May God bless President George Walker Bush and we, His almost chosen people.
Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.