Sunday, January 23, 2005

Inaugural Address Post-Mortem

Fallows@large by James Fallows
  • “Because it was so much like a campaign speech, the address contained numerous "Hey, wait a minute!" moments for anyone who didn't start out on the President's side. "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities." Hey, wait a minute! Isn't absence of the "rule of law" at Guantanamo and in the "torture memos" the main item on Europeans' list of complaints about the Administration? "Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies. The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies' defeat." Hey, wait a minute—these same Europeans would say—you mean, if we're not with you on any detail, we're doing the terrorists' work? "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." Hey, wait a minute! What about all the dissident-jailing, women-oppressing regimes that are our allies right now?

  • The speech actually made one or two allusions to the "other side's" symbols and heroes. For instance, praise for the era "when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner 'Freedom Now.'" And it included a list of important spiritual sources of American strength, which started with "the truths of Sinai [and] the Sermon on the Mount" but—whew!—then mentioned "the words of the Koran." But there were more, and more varied, signals to the "community of faith" that has largely supported the President. ("History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty," among many others.)

  • Most impressive yet strange allusion: "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well—a fire in the minds of men." On the good side: a reference to James Billington's book by that name, about the intellectual and spiritual origins of the American Revolution. Strange aspect: the phrase itself comes from Dostoevsky's The Possessed”.

  • Final reading assignment: it's worth taking a few minutes to read this speech side-by-side with John Kennedy's venerated inaugural address. In their central theme, the two speeches are surprisingly similar. Bush's is half again as long as Kennedy's—2000-plus words, versus about 1350—and to that extent windier, but sentence by sentence each is well composed. The difference, in my view, is that Kennedy's sounds as if it comes from a man with a tragic imagination, while Bush's sounds ... like something else. Read them both and see for yourself.

    con·cept: Inaugural Address Post-Mortem