President Bush’s inaugural address Thursday was one of the most exhilarating ever delivered — but also one of the most disconcerting.
The address was soaringly eloquent, audaciously idealistic and deeply reverent. Yet its content was so breathtakingly ambitious as to verge on hubris. [IMGCAP(1)]
The president set nothing less than this as the standard by which his tenure will be judged: “America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout the world, and to all inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength — tested, but not weary — we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.”
This was a man who, during the 2000 campaign, declared that America should pursue a “humble” foreign policy.
Initially, that approach was disappointing, especially in view of America’s failure to stop genocide in Rwanda. But now, four years later, there is nothing left of humility, or even modesty, about George W. Bush’s ambitions.
Indeed, it appears that the only entity he deems himself inferior to is God Almighty. The president has made plain that he wants to liberate the world and reform the most sweeping social programs of the past 100 years.
Bush will not only be judged on his ability to deliver on his promises; he also serves notice that he is taking this country on a historic rocket ride. We will either live in a transformed country and world when it is over, as Bush hopes, or we will be mired in violence, hatred, division and humiliation.
We will not have to wait long to see whether Bush ranks as one of the greatest leaders in American history or whether he has drastically and tragically overreached. Iraq is the test and as such it deserved to be given more than a passing, almost cryptic, reference in his speech — “our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill.”
If Iraq becomes a stable democracy — or even if it becomes only a semi-democracy — then there is every reason to hope that freedom can spread throughout its benighted region and the world.
But if Iraq cascades into chaos — and especially if the United States abandons its mission in the process — then Bush will go down as a failure as a president. Worse, American ideals will be tarnished, American leadership will be undermined, the enemies of liberty will have triumphed and, likely, our country will be plunged into even deeper division.
An image that occurred to me when Bush had finished his speech was of one of baseball’s greatest moments — Babe Ruth’s legendary “called shot” in the 1932 World Series. Heckled by Chicago Cubs fans, he pointed his bat toward Wrigley Field’s center field bleachers — and promptly hit a home run right where he had pointed.
Bush will be Ruth — lionized and remembered decades later — if Iraq and his domestic reforms work out. If they don’t, he’ll be the laughingstock that Ruth would have been had he struck out.
Of course, the stakes for the country are much greater than a baseball game. Our nation’s destiny rides on his ambition.
So Bush’s speech and goals deserve to be judged in more lofty historic terms. And, indeed, he echoed in places the best of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and, especially, Woodrow Wilson.
Bush’s chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson, deserves credit for writing a dazzlingly eloquent speech. And Bush was compelling when he asked young people to “believe the evidence of your eyes” about the idealism and courage of U.S. soldiers and to dedicate themselves to causes “larger than your wants.”
Bush echoed Lincoln: “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.”
Bush’s domestic policy presumes to do no less than to rewrite Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy: “By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.”
FDR, following on Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, established government as the great protector of individual citizens against fear and want. Bush wants “to give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country” by building an “ownership society.”
Overwhelmingly, though, this was a Wilsonian speech with overtones of JFK. “The survival of liberty in our own land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he said. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
That was Wilson.
“So it is the policy of the United States,” he said, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
That was Kennedy, as in his inaugural promise to “pay any price, bear any burden … support any friend, oppose any foe” to assure the success of liberty.
It was an exhilarating line. But it also, disconcertingly, led to Vietnam, a noble cause but a national tragedy.