Peggy Noonan: Why I Disliked Bush's Inaugural Address





Peggy Noonan, in the WSJ (1-27-05):

I have been called old, jaded, a sourpuss. Far worse, I have been called French. A response is in order.

You know the dispute. Last week I slammed the president's inaugural address. I was not alone, but I came down hard, early and in one of the most highly read editorial pages in America. Bill Buckley and David Frum also had critical reactions. Bill Safire on the other hand called it one of the best second inaugurals ever, and commentators from right and left (Bill Kristol, E.J. Dionne) found much to praise and ponder. (To my mind the best response to the inaugural was the grave, passionate essay of Mark Helprin.) So herewith some questions and answers:

A week later, do I stand by my views?

Yes. If I wrote it today I wouldn't be softer, but harder.

Am I heartened by White House clarifications that the speech did not intend to announce the unveiling of a new policy?

Yes. My reaction is the exact opposite of Bill Bennett's and E.J. Dionne's, who were both disappointed. I am relieved.

Why don't I see the speech as so many others do, as a thematic and romantic statement of what we all hope for, world freedom? Don't we all want that?

Yes. But words have meaning. To declare that it is now the policy of the United States to eradicate tyranny in the world, that we are embarking on the greatest crusade in the history of freedom, and that the survival of American liberty is dependent on the liberty of every other nation--seemed to me, and seems to me, rhetorical and emotional overreach of the most embarrassing sort.

What's wrong with a little overweening ambition? Shouldn't man's reach exceed his grasp?

True. But history is quite big enough right now. We've already been given a lot to grasp. The president will have real juice for the next 2 1/2 years. If in the next 30 months he can stabilize and fortify Iraq, helping it to become a functioning democratic entity that doesn't encourage terrorism; further gird and undergird Afghanistan; keep the U.S. safe from attack; make our alliances closer; make permanent his tax cuts; and break through on Social Security, that will be huge. It will be historic. It will yield a presidency that even its severest critics will have to admit was enormously consequential, and its supporters will rightly claim as leaving a lasting legacy of courage and inspiration. We don't need more than that--it's quite enough. And it will be quite astonishing. Beyond that, don't overreach. Refrain from breast beating, and don't clobber the world over the head with your moral fabulousness.

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