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Is Bush a Revolutionary?

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
 And time future contained in time past

-- T.S. Eliot

Don King has taken on some new fights recently weighing in to promote his commander–in–chief. Kings says “I love George Walker because I think he’s a revolutionary. He’s a president that comes in with conclusiveness.” King later states that he is “fighting back, and he’s throwing great combinations. And I think he’s the guy that is really a revolutionary president.” Like King, I want to support Dubya because everyone is punching him (though wrestle with King’s revolutionary brand). And why shouldn’t us Brits? For we have a spring in our step after recently being released from “Shylock’s hands” (World War II mortgage–like repayments).

While diplomatic historians have been extraordinarily rapid to parade the fundamental continuities between Bush’s post–9/11 foreign policy (Melvyn Leffler, John Lewis Gaddis and the Massachusetts mass–producing mastermind Niall Ferguson), the weight of moral and religious rhetoric has been comparatively abandoned. Although occasionally described by pundits, George W. Bush’s exercise of moral and religious rhetoric is not revolutionary in the American presidency. Throughout history and across party boundaries, presidents have employed such ageless appeals.  

An enquiry that utilizes scientific (both quantitative and qualitative) analysis to study the moral and religious language contained in presidential rhetoric (Inaugural and annual addresses from George W: 1 to George W: 43) facilitates historical comparisons testing commonly held perceptions. Incontrovertibly, “Inaugurals link past and future in present contemplation.”    

First, a broad observation can be discerned about Colleen Shogan’s data in The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents. Jackson, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Reagan, and George W: 43 are “high” points on percentage of moral sentences and Lincoln, Taft, Kennedy, and Clinton are “low” marks. The revolutionary theme however lies not with President 43 but 28 and Woodrow Wilson in the fluctuation of the language becoming increasingly detached from relevant policy arguments. Shogan’s data illuminates that this moral revolution was the midwife to “a trend of presidential moralizing without a particular policy in mind” whereby “addresses changed fundamentally from evolving from a principled discussion of the constitution and foreign policy to routinized crisis discourse.” This was Wilson’s revolution–not Bush’s (a revolution overturning the predominant Neustadtian presidential paradigm for an evangelical style). The revolutionary protagonists are circa a hundred years out.

A second observation links moral with religious rhetoric and is most pertinent in comprehending US foreign policy tradition. Shogan scholarly detects that upgrading conventional foreign “political questions to the status of good versus evil is an ingrained habit”: for George W: 1, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and George W: 43 who are all “reinforcing” moral leaders (an article in the most recent edition of Presidential Studies Quarterly posits that Carter and Bush share an “evangelical family resemblance”).

In the wake of the 2004 Presidential election opponents see Bush’s faith as unprecedented and revolutionary. In Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George Bush, Gary Scott Smith catalogues that none of this is revolutionary; analysing “Piety along the Potomac.” Whether we compartmentalize presidential faith under Theodore Roosevelt’s “Muscular Christianity,” Woodrow Wilson’s “Soldiers of Christ” or George Bush’s transformation from “self–help Methodist” (pre–9/11) to “a messianic Calvinist” (post–9/11) the standard country club deity at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is ageless–though direct correlations are difficult.

US presidents have cyclically declared that America must together exemplify and export democracy (“democratic evangelicalism”). George W: 1 vied in his first inaugural address that “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government” depended on America’s success. Jefferson labelled the American experiment “the last best hope for mankind,” and correspondingly, Lincoln called the Union “the last best hope of the earth.” Prior to Lincoln, Madison, in Federalist 10 invoked the people “to extend the sphere” to protect democracy and further perfect the Union. “Upon the success of our experiment,” alleged Theodore Roosevelt, “much depends, not only with regard to our own welfare, but as regards the welfare of mankind.” Roosevelt further spoke of a “duty to put down savagery and barbarism” so that people living in savage conditions might be freed from their chains. “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history,” declared George W: 43, “to be a model to the world of justice.” 

US presidents possess(ed) what Edmund Burke called a moral imagination; the belief that there was right and wrong in the world. Both Roosevelt’s, Wilson, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush accentuated patriotic piety against the evils of autocracy, fascism, communism, or terrorism (Islamo–Bolshevism). Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt saw German henchmen during both World War I and II “as enemies of true religion.” What is more, Wilson portrayed himself and other Christians in Cromwellian terms as “Soldiers of the Cross” and the American soldiers who fought in France in 1918 as “Crusaders” uniting “in the one Grand Army of Liberty.” Eisenhower viewed Uncle Sam’s effort with the Soviet Union as a “war of light against darkness… and freedom against slavery.” Reagan denounced the U.S.S.R as an “evil empire.” Bush declared a “Crusade” against terrorism and Iraq, Iran and, North Korea to be an “axis of evil.” All seven increasingly came to be seen “as God’s instrument in the battle between good and evil” striving to surmount their respective weltpolitik. In the discourses that attend(ed) these generational engagements the logic of civilization and barbarism is (and was) never far away. “Conversion of … [a] pirate into a Lockean man… was not simple racism,” writes Robert Kagan in Dangerous Nation, “It was civilizationism.” All George W: 43 was doing was employing an age–old custom rather than launching a revolutionary one–and one that George W: 1 would have understood perfectly well.