Swinging for the Fences

The power of oral rhetoric may lie in part upon the originality of formulation, carefully crafted phrases employing elements of alliteration and repetition tied together with the proper meter and timing. George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address was a competently delivered speech, but its real resonance lies not with its beautiful poetry of phrase but in the fact that its ideas are not original. The speech’s power, for those not gagging with political resentment, lies in the fact that its ideas grow organically out of our shared history and political culture. The speech is a masterful rephrasing and renewal of ideas over 200 hundred years old. Consider specific examples how Bush’s speech calls upon our shared political literature and speeches.

* Bush specifically evokes that nation’s founding documents when he asserts, “From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.” This is a restatement of Jefferson’s phraseology in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

* The country is politically divided and Bush reached out in the speech to heal these divisions: “We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes — and I will strive in good faith to heal them.” This genuine call for reconciliation matches the intention but not quite the poetry of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
* The central theme of Bush’s speech is the ascent of humanity towards the goal of freedom. Bush asserts that, “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom.” This is no less confident than the pledge in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural that, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

* Bush modestly evokes hope that these efforts are consistent with the will of God, but modestly acknowledges no special or unique knowledge of that will. Bush’s admonition that, “God moves and chooses as He wills.” parallels the warning in Lincolns Second Inaugural Address that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Bush’s speech is essentially an affirmation that America’s central commitment is to freedom and liberty and the recognition that the US is most secure when freedom and liberty flourish throughout the world. Bush renews the American commitment to support the expansion of freedom, to the extent possible. It represents the merging of realism and idealism: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Specifically, Bush pledges that the US will support and aid in the goal, but ultimately the acceptance of freedom must be a choice made by each people: “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

The response to the Inaugural Address has been illuminating. The Europeans were generally cool, perhaps a little apprehensive as to what a commitment to freedom really means. Despite the fact that the entire speech explained the moral and historical underpinning for a US foreign policy that nurtures freedom, the News Telegraph telegraphed that it really did not understand the speech when its headline shouted “Defiant Bush Doesn’t Mention the War.” [1]

Most surprising was the reaction of Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for President Ronald Reagan. She generally has a well-tuned ear for rhetoric, but was upset with the speech complaining that it was a “rather heavenish” and “God-drenched speech.” Noonan forgets, and will surely be reminded by her Conservative friends, that the country’s founding and ideals are deeply routed in a spiritually-informed view of the nature of man. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address unselfconsciously invokes God at least 13 times, where Bush made a comparatively modest six references. The speech may seem “God-drenched” to a modern sensibility that is far too “God-dry.”

If you believe that the nature of man is transcendent, the belief has consequences. One of these consequences is a commitment to freedom as an inherent right. After all we cannot, in the words of Lincoln, call forth the “better angels” of our nature if there are no angels in our nature.

For those who complain that Bush is too ambitious, they are also implicitly uncomfortable that the country’s temperament is too hopeful and imbued with too much confidence. Their complaint is more with our collective history than with Bush in particular. It is clear that Bush is not inclined to “small-ball.” His Second Inaugural Address suggests that he is “swinging for the fences.” It is sometimes difficult for those who are incredibly small to acknowledge that we currently enjoy a president who is large and consequential.

[1] If one reads European papers one is likely to begin to believe that “Defiant” is Bush’s first name.

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