What Historians Thought of President Bush's 2nd Inaugural Address: Excerpts





Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

Allan Lichtman (Presidential Historian, Professor of History American University)

• "It's one of the most ringing endorsements of American intervention in American history… There's no limit to a subject so broadly defined, he set out, in broad thematic terms, a justification for a free hand."

Thomas Cronin (President of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington)

• "Bush's speech was messianic in many ways. He plainly wants to play an internationalist role, saying we're going to fight on behalf of those who are fighting terrorism around the world. It was a proclamation of almost a crusade."

John Lewis Gaddis (Professor of History, Yale University)

• "It's very much in the tradition of great speeches of the past. This is where we want to be some distance from now. We understand we can't get there tomorrow. But it's important to have that destination described."

Barbara Kellerman (Research Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University)

• "I would point to three things in particular. One is a statement of purpose where he says so it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements in every nation and culture. The ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. Second, he makes the point of a clear comparison with communism. Very important. We're in a multigenerational long-term fight here for peace and liberty around the world. And third, finally, for the moment, I was struck by the language, repeated use of the word slavery. Repeated use of the word tyranny. Reference to bullies. Particularly singling out women's rights. So this first half of the speech was clear, moral, purpose and, make no mistake about it."

Henry Graff (Emeritus Professor of History at Columbia University, on PBS)

•"This was a typical second term speech. It's broad, there are no names aside from Lincoln's. It reads better than it was delivered. I thought it was delivered without passion, I compare as I think most people will without the passion that went into a similar comparable salute to freedom that was delivered by Kennedy. I would also like to say that we ought to observe the high place that the Vice-President had in this ceremony. Vice-presidents have not had a place like this, most of them, almost all of them, sworn in the Senate chamber, and they come out sworn in to the session. Monroe was the only President in a long time that would even ride with with a Vice-President, and of course we know that Truman drove with Alben Barkley, but this was very special."
• "I think the second speech that a president gives as an inaugural is one that he is looking for his place on postage stamps and coins at some future time."
• "The agenda wasn't stated. What are we to do, how are we going to achieve all of this in all parts of the world, how are we going to support for freedom elsewhere in the world. It is a wonderful statement, it is a salute to freedom, it will be quoted, but it will not be a major national document."

Ellen Fitzpatrick (Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, on PBS)

• "From my point of view I think the most fascinating thing about it is that it is embedded itself in history. The introduction in particular, it frames all the rest of the inaugural in history, and it shares with other wartime inaugurals the fact that the place of our current war is not mentioned, the war in Iraq was never uttered. The first time the word Vietnam was uttered was in 1981 by Reagan, There were four inaugurals during the Vietnam War, the specifics of the war are not dwelt upon, and this speech was similar."
•"I think it is an extraordinarily ambitous statement of American commitment surrounding the world. It actually broadens the Truman Doctrine; it reiterates and broadens it in talking about defending democratic movements in every nation and in every culture. And the speech also in characterizing recent history, the last fifty years or so ...says that until the fall of Communism and until
9-11 we simply defended freedom. Watched on distant borders. Where is the Vietnam War, where are the billions of dollars, where are the 58,000 lives in that characterization of recent history. It is extraordinary I think. We defended our freedom by standing watch; I think that's a puzzling charactistic to me of the last fifty years."
• "It is interesting that the ownership society that he is mentions, the three programs that he refers to the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill are three expansive uses of Federal power, if you had to go through all of American history they would be among them."

Richard Norton Smith (Director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, on PBS)

• "I don’t think it is a typical inaugural address, because I don't think these are typical times, and I think we saw that reflected in this. This is the speech that Woodrow Wilson could have given. This notion of America, this was a lay sermon that actually attempted to define both our international mission and our national character, and was a bit of a contradiction in this speech, the President said in the end that we do not consider ourselves a chosen nation, maybe so but if you listen to overwhelmingly in the rest of the speech he certainly thinks we have a special mission, a mission from history indeed, perhaps a mission from God. One final quote when he says 'we will persistently clarify the choice before every war and every nation,' if I was ... in Tehran I would be paying careful attention to that sentence."
• "Don't overlook the domestic speech that will be overlooked, perhaps understandably. 'We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance.' Guess what folks-- that is a very ambitious domestic agenda of reform that is bound to be enormously controversial."
•"Freedom abroad and freedom at home, freedom is our civic religion, we salute it like the flag on the Fourth of July, the problem is no two people define it the same."
•"The question that does arise is whether this is in many ways a very articulate, powerful assertion of American exceptionalism - which is nothing new. It goes back to the first inaugural address. George Washington spoke of the sacred fire of liberty.... Now you have George W. Bush restating the notion of America as missionary to the world. John Kennedy talked about defending liberty whenever it was in danger. George Bush is talking about extending liberty to wherever it doesn't exist…. I think at one point he said it was an odd time for doubt. He clearly doesn't entertain doubts."

Julian Zelizer (Professor of History at Boston University, on "Here and Now")

•"I think it is a great speech in terms of placing himself in terms of a broader context which is what a second term inauguration speech should do. I think by embracing Wilsonian goals he will also inherit Wilsonian problems. President Wilson's second term was very tough and it goes down in many ways in defeat. Also I think there is a fundamental tension in his talk, which is a tension the Republicans are wrestling with. On foreign policy he is calling for an aggressive government that will do things that have not been done before, and on domestic policy he is saying we need private character over public interest which is a turn away from government and the two don't necessarily jive."
• "I do think though on domestic policy this whole idea of an ownership society of individual choice is some kind of a framework to sell conservatism to the center to Democrats who are unhappy with their party, and to moderate Republicans who have not heard their voice in the administration, and I think there is something there that needs to be looked at seriously."
• "Presidential references to God are nothing new, there is a danger of making too much of Bush. The difference is the Christian movement that has surrounded him in this inauguration is much more powerful than it has ever been historically."
• "It is not that uncommon in war time speeches to hear some kind of sabre rattling. In the third inauguration speech of Franklin Roosevelt, I am sure some of the same tone was there. The difference is there is very little talk of sacrifice, and I think that is something different that this administration has not stressed much. Meaning how citizens need to sacrifice something in a period of war that was the central theme of Franklin Roosevelt, and Bush has been much more about tax cuts and giving people ownership rather than asking people to give of themselves."

Gil Troy (Professor of History, McGill University, author of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s)

•"It's striking -- you could shuffle the text of George W. Bush's inaugural address in a pile of high-minded, interventionist speeches given by FDR and JFK Democrats, and, except for his elliptical reference to the rights of the 'unwanted' -- deem Bush a classic, post World War II, Four Freedoms, Pay any Price, Bear any Burden liberal. Clinton Rossiter talked about the Great Intellectual Train Robbery of American History occurring in the nineteenth century, when corporate America hijacked Jeffersonian, small government liberalism, to oppose government interventionism. Now, George W. Bush may be completing the 2nd Great Intellectual Train Robbery of American history -- the first in Foreign Policy -- begun by Ronald Reagan. Bush was not only challenging the world and the Democrats -- he was also challenging the isolationist wing of his own party, with its venerable history of opposing interventionism. If Bush continues with his interventionist and freedom-spreading strategy, and if Democrats continue to be so infuriated with him that they sour on traditional liberal interventionism just because he's supporting it, we could be in for some clarity on foreign policy within the parties and a further red-blue polarization on foreign policy lines."
•"Of course, we need to inject a historical note of precaution in that inaugural addresses often become memorable -- or eminently forgettable -- only with the passage of time. The relationship between Bush's rhetoric and his record of success or failure, will determine the true resonance of this address. But in the meantime, Bush has made it clear that he doesn't buy all the post-election spinning about morality and values issues as that central; he's continuing to see -- as he said after 9/11 -- that his presidency will be judged on the question of how he and America responded to the war on terror."

George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 2005)

• "For a half a century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical. And then there came a day of fire."

• "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. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

• "The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."

• "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."

•"The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it."

•"In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time. To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools and build an ownership society. We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society. 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."

• "From the perspective of a single day, including this day of dedication, the issues and questions before our country are many. From the viewpoint of centuries, the questions that come to us are narrowed and few. Did our generation advance the cause of freedom? And did our character bring credit to that cause?"

• "When our Founders declared a new order of the ages, when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty, when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner Freedom Now they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty."

• "When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, It rang as if it meant something. In our time it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength, tested but not weary we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.


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Richard Henry Morgan - 1/27/2005

Maybe he thinks words would be redundant.


Michael Glen Wade - 1/26/2005

He's gotten no reply because the title is appropriate. The speech was a statement of the administration's general bellicosity toward those who disagree with it, and of interventionist intentions, mouthed but undoubted not written by a fellow who has only the barest conception of the terms he so blithely mouths. Remove the high-sounding veneer and what is left is recycled "my country, right or wrong/if you're not for us you're against us rhetoric" that proposes to spend one hell of a lot of money on military adventurism that will only magnify hostility toward the United States while weakening the dollar---homeland security? Meanwhile, Ken Lay is getting away (but, by god, we got Martha Stewart), an invasion of illegal aliens is well-advanced as our government ignores American workers and African-Americans, we still have no energy policy that does much more than kiss up to the oil companies, our health care remains the property of the AMA, HMOs & insurance companies, and our civil liberties continue to erode under an administration that would not recognize Freedom or Liberty if she entered the Blue Room in the altogether.

The amazing thing about the "historians comments," redundant or not, is that as the analysts try to achieve some sort of perspective, they are remarkably uncritical in the sense that they do not really measure the remarks against the current landscape of debt and drift.


Lisa Kazmier - 1/26/2005

He may try to put a velvet glove on it, but considering how elsewhere some people see "democracy" as an Orwellian term for "siphoning oil" (to put it a bit delicately), I don't think you're wrong in reading his "crusade" as an imperial one. Funny how you haven't gotten a clarification as to why you're wrong.


Jonathan Pine - 1/23/2005

The actual inaugural address in full context was not quoted on this HNN page.

Thought it was a good speech as far as speeches go but the goal of spreading democracy, nice it is, has no evidence that free states are less likely to breed terrorists. One example is the Russian transitional democracy which is more violent today than the authoritarian one that was replaced.

Bush read the speech that was written for him eloquently and no doubt he was sincere about spreading this freedom all over the place but it’s plain for the world to see the contradiction between his words and actions. Although he claims that freedom has to be chosen and defended by its citizens his army is in the process of imposing democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq. Here in the USA he wants to "make our society more prosperous and just and equal," but look at what happened in Bush’s first term: a huge distribution of income from the working people to the wealthy, declining real income, less job security, erosion of civil liberties with the Patriot Act.

But nevertheless I also think this speech also shows that Americans are idealists who have grown rich and effective directly as a result of Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideals, to name a couple. Thank the forefathers.


Arnold Shcherban - 1/23/2005

Would you be so kind to point out what is wrong with my title?


mark safranski - 1/23/2005

And would no doubt be as erroneous as your title.


Arnold Shcherban - 1/23/2005

Comments are redundant...

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