Inaguration Speech Reaction Roundup

Reactions from the punditocracy were mixed and mostly–but not entirely–divided along ideological lines.

Tom Shales, shockingly, was not impressed.

It’s a wonder, really, that the words didn’t fly right off the page. “Soaring” and “lofty” were the adjectives most often used by network chatterboxes in describing the Second Inaugural Address of George W. Bush, delivered yesterday from the West Front of the Capitol building.

Security was so tight that at that moment, the Capitol became the loveliest armed camp in the world. The speech was lovely, too, and at 21 minutes, sensibly brief. Historians reading the speech in the future, or people reading the transcript this morning in the newspaper, may well marvel at the language. Unfortunately, it will probably be more impressive in print than as Bush, in his usual baby-blue necktie, delivered it. President Bush’s inaugural speech was lofty but the delivery was lacking. Bush’s capabilities as an orator fluctuate from speech to speech, and this time they were at low ebb. The delivery lacked heart and soul.

William Safire, who knows something of speechwriting, disagreed:

On his way out of the first Cabinet meeting after his re-election, President Bush gave his longtime chief speechwriter the theme for the second Inaugural Address: “I want this to be the freedom speech.” In the next month, the writer, Michael Gerson, had a heart attack. With two stents in his arteries, the recovering writer received a call from a president who was careful not to apply any deadline pressure. “I’m not calling to see if the inaugural speech is O.K.,” Bush said. “I’m calling to see if the guy writing the inaugural speech is O.K.” Yesterday’s strongly thematic address was indeed “the freedom speech.” Not only did the words “freedom, free, liberty” appear 49 times, but the president used the world-watched occasion to expound his basic reason for the war and his vision of America’s mission in the world.

I rate it among the top 5 of the 20 second-inaugurals in our history. Lincoln’s profound sermon “with malice toward none” is incomparable, but Bush’s second was better than Jefferson’s mean-spirited pouting at “the artillery of the press.” In Bush’s “second gathering” (Lincoln called it his “second appearing”), the Texan evoked J.F.K.’s “survival of liberty” phrase to convey his central message: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Bush repeated that internationalist human-rights idea, with a slight change, in these words: “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Peggy Noonan, very surprisingly, hated the speech (although she agreed with me on the music):

The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike. Rhetorically, it veered from high-class boilerplate to strong and simple sentences, but it was not pedestrian. George W. Bush’s second inaugural will no doubt prove historic because it carried a punch, asserting an agenda so sweeping that an observer quipped that by the end he would not have been surprised if the president had announced we were going to colonize Mars. A short and self-conscious preamble led quickly to the meat of the speech: the president’s evolving thoughts on freedom in the world. Those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty.

No one will remember what the president said about domestic policy, which was the subject of the last third of the text. This may prove to have been a miscalculation. It was a foreign-policy speech. To the extent our foreign policy is marked by a division that has been (crudely but serviceably) defined as a division between moralists and realists–the moralists taken with a romantic longing to carry democracy and justice to foreign fields, the realists motivated by what might be called cynicism and an acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power–President Bush sided strongly with the moralists, which was not a surprise. But he did it in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance.

The administration’s approach to history is at odds with what has been described by a communications adviser to the president as the “reality-based community.” A dumb phrase, but not a dumb thought: He meant that the administration sees history as dynamic and changeable, not static and impervious to redirection or improvement. That is the Bush administration way, and it happens to be realistic: History is dynamic and changeable. On the other hand, some things are constant, such as human imperfection, injustice, misery and bad government.

This world is not heaven. The president’s speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. “The Author of Liberty.” “God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind . . . the longing of the soul.” It seemed a document produced by a White House on a mission. The United States, the speech said, has put the world on notice: Good governments that are just to their people are our friends, and those that are not are, essentially, not. We know the way: democracy. The president told every nondemocratic government in the world to shape up. “Success in our relations [with other governments] will require the decent treatment of their own people.”

The speech did not deal with specifics–9/11, terrorism, particular alliances, Iraq. It was, instead, assertively abstract. “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” “Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self government. . . . Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”

Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.

While I don’t disagree with much of this, one shouldn’t confuse an Inauguration address with a State of the Union speech. The former is about vision, the latter about policy.

The Claremont Institute thought the speech positively revolutionary:

President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address is the most fascinating one of recent times. It projects grand ambitions for the nation, domestic and foreign. Its greatness as a speech comes from its Lincolnian themes, not its Wilsonian ones, as commentators are maintaining. Its ambition involves the world and American politics, and the relationship between the two. In foreign policy its ambition was quite plain, calling for the overthrow of tyrannies and the establishment of democracies. Domestically, it responds to FDR’s 1944 State of the Union Address, which called for a second, economic Bill of Rights and still serves as the touchstone of contemporary liberalism.

The “force of human freedom” working its way through history, a history with “a visible direction set by liberty and the author of liberty,” is the theme that dominates the second inaugural. Self-government rests on the principle that “no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.” This truth applies to all nations, especially our own. Now the “imperative of self-government” is “the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time.” “So it is the policy of the United States 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.” Tyranny would be put “in the course of ultimate extinction,” to use Lincolnian language about slavery.

Fred Barnes was also impressed.

WHAT WAS SO GREAT about President Bush’s inaugural address? First, it was eloquent, noting that freedom lights “a fire in the minds of men” and represents both “the hunger in dark places [and] the longing of the soul.” More important, the speech laid out an extraordinarily sweeping and ambitious foreign policy for the nation. In doing so, Bush broke down the barrier between the foreign policy idealists, of which he and President Reagan are the most notable, and the realists, who include his father and his father’s two chief advisers on foreign affairs, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker.

The most significant statement in the speech was simple and not lyrical at all: “It is the policy of the United States 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’s quite a declaration, one likely to unnerve tyrants and autocrats and even a few allies around the world. But Bush wasn’t kidding or just riffing.

What the president added to his crusade for democracy made the policy all the more important. Bush said the creation of more democracies would have the effect making the United States more secure. Indeed, the need to seed freedom in as many countries as possible “is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time.” In the same vein, he said: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other
lands.” Though he didn’t say so in the speech, the president believes the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a democratic Iraq will make America safer in the world. Likewise, the fall of dictators in other countries.

Nor did Bush flatly insist he’d smashed the barrier between the idealists–or moralists as they’re often dubbed–and the realists. But he had. In fact, British prime minister Tony Blair has told him so. The idealists have as their ultimate goal in the world the spread of democracy. And Bush said he would wage a full-blown campaign for democracy, that now being “the policy.” Democracy is a noble goal by itself, but the president said it carries the added value of making America more secure.

Alessandra Stanley‘s piece, “Coverage Anchored in Color and Style, Not in Substance,” focused on the television treatment of the speech, which I of course missed:

It was the second inauguration of George W. Bush but the first in a new era of network news. Live commentary by Dan Rather, Brian Williams and Peter Jennings was as subdued and tentative as the president’s speech was celebratory and defiant. The coverage was bland, but it certainly proved the pronouncement this week by Les Moonves, the CBS chairman, that the epoch of “voice of God” anchors was over.

Days after CBS released an independent inquiry condemning reporting by Mr. Rather and “60 Minutes II,” Mr. Rather was not his usual bluff self, bristling with Texas Ratherisms, as they are known. The chastened newsman and Bush family bête noire looked, as he once might have put it, as comfortable as an armadillo in the middle of the highway. While the president was giving a speech full of the Texas swagger he calls “walkin’,” the anchor was giving commentary that seemed more like tiptoein’.

On NBC, Mr. Williams, anchoring his first inauguration, left the meaty analysis to Tim Russert and instead clung to minute details of pomp and pageantry, describing the make of the new Cadillac DTS limousines in the motorcade and the marketing skill of its makers as if what is good for GM is still good for the nation.

Even Mr. Jennings, the ABC anchor, held back, perhaps aware that once Mr. Rather retires in March, he moves up to Network Enemy No. 1 for conservative critics like Rush Limbaugh. Besides saying that he detected “a lot of Natan Sharansky,” an Israeli cabinet member and former Soviet dissident, in the president’s comments about freedom, Mr. Jennings kept his eyes on style more than substance, particularly the feigned comity between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. (“They are being impeccably nice to each other,” he said with a knowing smile.)

The only anchor who immediately and gustily addressed the bold, pugnacious tone of Mr. Bush’s speech was Shepard Smith of Fox News. Dismissing the president’s prewar focus on unconventional weapons as secondary to the desire to reshape the Middle East, Mr. Smith said the speech made it clear that the president all along had a grander agenda. “People inside the administration know that all Bush wanted to do is to plant a flag of freedom,” he said.

Feel free to link to your own speech reactions below.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. kappiy says:

    Gerson’s speech was typical–platitudinous and vapid.

    The punditry–as nicely compiled by James–was typically bromidic.

    I always wonder when I hear Bush talk about “freedom,” what exactly he means by the term. There is a debate in moralistic philosophy that asserts an antinomy between freedom & reason; freedom–if taken to its logical conclusion–can impede the liberty of others. Rationality is the basis of a moral reasoning that negotiates the limits of freedom and reconciles divergent interests.

    This seems to be his epistemological approach, as evidenced by his idealism. The rationalist approach demands a serious engagement with justice–a word that you rarely hear Bush utter.

    It might be nice if Bush appointed an Aristotelian as his speech writer in the second term.

  2. Noonan misses the point. The war against terror and the quest for freedom are inextricably linked, and neither can succeed without the other.

    Noonan should read Bernard Lewis’ “The Crisis of Islam” and “What Went Wrong” and Daniel Benjamin’s and Steven Simon’s “The Age of Sacred Terror.” These books make it clear that the only way to prevail in the war against terrorism is to drain the swamp of the potential terrorists by bringing hope and freedom to those oppressed.

  3. anjin-san says:

    Peggy Noonan on Bush’s speech

    “The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike”

    Noonan also called the speech “disturbing”.

    Guess we can’t write this on off to DNC talking points…

  4. anjin-san says:

    How about another strategy for the war on terror?

    1. Marshall America’s considerable talents to develop an energy infrastructure that is not reliant on imported oil.

    2. Tell the middle eastern oil states where to stick their oil.

    3. Withdrawl our military forces from the middle east as there will be no vital intrest there for us to protect.

    Just a thought. I am sure there are those out there who feel all the problems associated with imported oil are well worth it as long as they can drive an SUV the size of a medium battle tank.

    The bonus is the terrible damage to our enviorment done by the oil economy will start to heal. Leave a decent planet for your grandkids to grow up in. Guess I am just a crazy dreamer…

  5. Tom Carter says:

    As I’ve noted before, inaugural addresses are traditionally short on policy specifics and long on vision and moral purpose. Look at some of the better ones from the past, including JFK’s, and you see the same thing. I think the President knows there’s a difference between aspiration and possibility.

    As Robert Browning said it, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

  6. LJD says:

    “Guess I am just a crazy dreamer…”

    So lets all get rid of our SUVs, and ride our bicycles to work. Then radical muslims won’t want to kill us for our free way of life anymore.
    And we can heat our homes with the body heat of our “comrades”.

  7. LJD says:

    Almost forgot…
    Kappiy, the difference between politics or law and philosophy is the major flaw in your argument. Our constitution makes freedom possible, but in the context or reason. The Declaration described “certain inalienable rights” that our country was born estalishing.

    My freedom is not subject to your rationale or reason, as one can certainly rationalize just about anything. What justice would there be in such a situation, that of the “majority”? Some things are simply not negotiable. That’s what scares me the most about the left, that they think they can do anything with 51% approval.

    Interesting that such a philosophy would come from am individual who is likely dead set against the patriot act. Am I right?

  8. John Armor says:

    Has anyone else noticed that with only eight exceptions, the entire speech breaks into iambic pentameter, or if you prefer, the heroic measure. These were used by Homer, Shakespeare, Pope, Cerbantes, and the KJV of the Bible? This is a particular interest of mine because I’m finishing up a book on Thomas Paine that analyzes this subject.

    Anyone who’s seen anything about this, please contact me.