As he launched himself yesterday on the second term that his enemies never dreamt would be his, George W. Bush delivered one of the great inauguration speeches in American history, the most eloquent of its kind since John F. Kennedy's triumph during another snowy Washington week in 1961.
In spare, forceful prose, Bush extended the Bush Doctrine, which says that the future safety of Americans at home depends on democracy abroad. So long as tyrants rule much of the world, he insists, Americans will be unsafe. Therefore, the United States must do all it can to extend democracy to every corner of the globe: "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." Seldom has idealism been so firmly and persuasively linked to self-interest.
Bush spoke of the past only in proud generalities, but he wove his arguments into the fabric of history by echoing the tone and sometimes the words used by Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Kennedy. One sentence directed to Americans ("Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself -- and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character") paraphrased Kennedy's plea that Americans ask what they can do for their country rather than what their country can do for them.
Bush's speech was the work of Michael Gerson, who is now considered one of the great presidential speechwriters. But anyone listening to the President's tone would have to assume that while the words were Gerson's, the passion belongs to Bush.
Critics of this President expected to hear a tempered and perhaps less forthright address. Many would like him to be less aggressive, less ambitious, perhaps less sure of himself; in fact, less Bush-like. If we believe the commentators, he's in a difficult spot.
The journalists who explained why he probably couldn't get re-elected in 2004 have started 2005 by explaining why, as a lame duck, he probably can't get anything done during his second term (which he shouldn't have had anyway). David Broder of the Washington Post declared yesterday that Bush must somehow overcome the "second-term curse," the falling-away of powers which afflicted Reagan and Clinton as they and their helpers grew tired and burnt out. Other journalists predict that Bush's own party, having won the election, will now feel no need to support him. Besides, his approval rating barely exceeds 50%.
But that's just one way to describe his situation. It's also true that not having to worry about re-election frees him to focus his still great power on principles he considers vital. And as the first Republican in 104 years to be re-elected with majorities in both the House and the Senate, he's hardly in immediate danger of political impotence. In the last six weeks, he's been slowly unveiling a domestic program that would change basic American institutions. He wants to simplify the tax code, reformulate the Social Security system, discourage the outrageous civil lawsuits that are enriching lawyers, raise the academic standards of high schools and turn the judiciary away from interventionism by appointing conservative judges to the appellate courts, especially the Supreme Court.
But on the steps of the Capitol he gave these plans only a cursory nod. Clearly, world politics and freedom are his main concerns. He put his case with remarkable force:
"We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. 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."
He expressed an almost mystical belief in freedom: "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it."
That last sentence may be among the most quoted from his speech, along with "No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave" and his promise to the oppressed of the world that "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Bush had hardly finished speaking before the TV pundits began wondering aloud how he could possibly apply his renewed demand for human liberty to the tyrannies of Saudi Arabia, China and other countries with which Washington does business. How will they react to his warning that "We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people"? And how would he deal with the fact that America, which wants to lead the world, has lost friends in many places through its policies?
But those arguments amounted to a colossal case of missing the point. Bush did not claim or imply that he would see his dream of universal liberty realized in his second term or for that matter in his lifetime. Ending tyranny, he said, is a project for generations. The last four decades have seen an unprecedented expansion of freedom but it remains hard work; and America's influence is not unlimited. Still, "The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it."
He set out in his inaugural address to state the long-range goal toward which Americans and others should direct their energies. He did just that, with uncommon eloquence. The Americans are lucky, the world is lucky, that the American President at this moment is a man who deeply understands the great issue of the age.