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Jan 23, 2005 7:47 pm

Conservatives on Bush's Inaugural ...

On Richard Jensen's Conservativenet, there's been considerable comment about Bush's inaugural address and reactions to it. Matthew Richter, a graduate student in comparative literature and intellectual history at Columbia, was most critical."Given that his 1st Inaugural was so good," said Richer,"I was surprised that this speech was so bad, even occasionally inscrutable. Its religiosity lacked any sense of modesty. It was messianic, almost megalomaniacal. Does our livelihood really depend on our ability to spread liberty to the backwaters of Asia and Africa? Hard to believe he had just sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution."

Ken Heineman, a Contributing Editor at Cliopatria, was positively euphoric:

I was deeply moved by President Bush's address. Its beautiful language and soft-spoken, heart-felt delivery, seemed to me to be on a par with the second inaugural address of Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt's first, and John F. Kennedy's.

President Bush made it clear that the work he set out for us will be one spanning generations. He exhorted us to look inside ourselves for our better natures and to form communities of hope and freedom for all, regardless of nationality, race, and religion. President Bush did not declare his intention to make the world perfect--contra Noonan--but for all of us to strive to struggle against fear in an effort to make life a little better, a little freer.

I believe, as Ben Wattenberg has written, that we are the"first universal nation." Universal not just because we have within our borders people from every corner of the globe, but because our ideals are universal. And we are defined by ideals, not by race and blood. American ideals, President Bush is arguing, are worth defending, even as we struggle to live up--not always successfully--to those very same ideals.

Quite honestly, there has within my own lifetime (born in 1962) a President that I can remember who moved me as much as President Bush has, in the past and especially yesterday.

The comment by Alonzo Hamby of Ohio University, was more measured, but it strikes me as the best positive reading of the inaugural address that I've seen.
Much of the comment thus far on the inaugural could use a little perspective. Bush is hardly the first American president to proclaim the virtues of democracy. And it seems clear that he uses the word, as Americans invariably do, in the sense of liberal democracy, a creed that reconciles majority rule with individual rights. The proclamation of an American mission to spread liberal democracy in the world is often connected with Democrats such as Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Kennedy (did Bush really outbid"pay any price, bear any burden"?), but Reagan staked a Republican claim to it. Bush needs to be understood as the latest comer to a long-established rhetorical tradition.

As for operational meaning, does anyone out there really think that he is going to try to overthrow the government of Pakistan? There is no reason to think that he and Condoleezza Rice do not understand the meaning of such terms as"lesser evil" or that the US in the next four years will rampage around the world. In fact, a"senior official" has identified a hit-list of the world's six most repugnant regimes that we would do well to try to change and have a clear interest in changing. No one can deny that doing something about these six is a big order that probably will not be achieved in Bush's second term, but what is the argument for ignoring them?

The realist tradition in American foreign policy has a long and honorable tradition. I happen to think that it served us pretty well during most of the Cold War, when we faced a nuclear-armed foe. But in today's world, the promotion of liberal democracy seems a pretty good strategy against Islamic terrorism. It won't be easy, but neither was nearly a half-century of containment. And, of course, we need to avoid moralistic hubris.

Let us also remember that realism has its own dark side. If asked to name the most shameful act of American foreign policy in my lifetime, I probably would refer to the decision of Brent Scowcroft and Bush 41 at the end of the Gulf War to encourage the Shia and Kurds to revolt against Saddam Hussein, then to do nothing as Saddam slaughtered them in horrific numbers. It was all about"stability," we later learned, after some embarrassing dissembling.

At this juncture, I'd rather see American foreign policy tied to the banner of liberal democracy, and I'm willing to bet that the administration can manage it intelligently.

Correction and Update: I have corrected an error in my original post. Kenneth Heineman is not a former student of Alonzo Hamby. Ken's doctorate is from the University of Pittsburgh. Responding to Hamby's remarks, Cliopatria's Contributing Editor, Michael Kazin, asked:
On what evidence does Prof. Hamby base his"bet" that Bush and co. will handle an idealistic foreign policy"responsibly"? They certainly failed that test in Iraq and could easily do the same in Iran, if they follow what seems to be Cheney's desire and bomb the nuclear facilities in that nation without winning approval first from our NATO allies.

And, in my opinion, the most shameless act of US foreign policy in my lifetime was the Clinton administration's failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, when doing so would probably have spared hundreds of thousands of lives. And I say that as a liberal Democrat.

For other reactions by historians, see these on HNN's mainpage.
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Stephen Tootle - 1/24/2005


Ralph E. Luker - 1/24/2005

Thanks, Michael, for the return in your own name. I apologize for the sarcasm in my first response. I wrongly believed that you were someone who had an instinctive disagreement with whatever Ken Heineman has to say.
Ken and I have exchanged e-mails about his position. He and I know that we disagree with each other about Bush's inaugural address and, probably, about the Bush administration in general. I'm inclined to think that it's largely been a wholesale disaster for the country and its place in the world. Ken seems not to think that. And, yet, we are friends and professional colleagues. We both want it to remain that way.

Michael Griffin - 1/24/2005

Ralph E. Luker, you have the advantage of me here, in that I have no real idea what the practices of reputable historians are generally, and especially, specifically, in regard to the attribution of ghost-written words in presidential addresses. I'll take your word for it, though.
I do know more than a little about the uses of sentimentality - to create and maintain cohesion in groups of the easily-misled - and its use to mask, to "spin", as is so often the case now, what are entirely unsentimental, in fact cruel, actions.
Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, the three presidents Heineman mentions, were all characterized by their concern for the less-fortunate, insisting at great cost on the rightness of sacrifice to elevate the downtrodden. Bush is sacrificing the downtrodden, and making them finance it into the bargain. There is a complete disconnect between the actions of the Bush Administration and the President's words in this speech.
The fact that Lincoln wrote his own words and spoke them, and that we have no direct record of his speaking tone, means his inclusion in Heineman's homage to his successor is extraneous.
Which leaves Kennedy and Roosevelt, two Democrats whose legacies have in common, primarily, the establishment of publicly-implemented programs for the restitution of social inequality. Highly successful programs we might add.
Again, Bush is the multiple choice item that does not belong.
And while he may have read the words that were written for him in a cadence and tone that some found inspirational, many of us are continuously disheartened, by his presence as the figurehead on what appears to be a scuttled and rapidly sinking ship. Feeling this way makes it difficult to encounter words like Heineman's and simply let them pass without comment.
If I was a little nitpicky about the attribution protocol, it was more as frame than foundation, though as I tried to make clear this second time around, there is cause to object on logical as well as historical grounds.
My comment originated in and from a sustained outrage at what's been done in the name of "freedom" and "liberty" by men who regard those concepts as proprietary and exclusionary terms, and a more immediate indignation at having this decidedly uncompassionate man compared to three other presidents who were, for all their failings in other areas, compassionate to the point of self-detriment.
Regardless of who wrote their speeches.

Michael S. Griffin

Jonathan Dresner - 1/24/2005

Do I have to?

All I'm really saying is that the words are fine (actually, there's a great deal there that I like), but what matters is what he actually does ("operational meaning"), and I don't have as much confidence as Hamby that this administration's concerns will really shift away from strategic resources. North Korea -- a brutal, repressive, recently WMD-armed regime -- is a really good example of a place where our stated priorities and actions do not well match.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/24/2005

One assumes that the distinguished historian, "ajax bucky," is well aware of the use of speech writers by both FDR and JFK, that few reputable historians shy away from attributing the ghost-written words in presidential addresses to those for whom they were produced, and that "ajax bucky" would need to make a case here why we should depart from that practice in the case of President Bush.

Michael Griffin - 1/23/2005

Ken Heineman says of Bush's Inaugural speech:
"Its beautiful language and soft-spoken, heart-felt delivery..."
It may be that there are recordings of Lincoln's Inaugural address somewhere, but I haven't encountered them. Like anyone who admires his moral stature and the eloquence that serves it I can imagine what he sounded like. Certainly there are first-hand descriptions. But to use the phrase "on a par with" in comparing the two requires a familiarity with Lincoln's delivery I don't believe Heineman has. Maybe he only meant to compare the language in Lincoln's speech with Bush's, reserving the "soft-spoken, heart-felt delivery" for a comparison with Kennedy and Roosevelt. But then I wonder who could listen to John Kennedy's impassioned Inaugural rhetoric and call it "soft-spoken".
Roosevelt's clipped patrician tone, and incisive mastery of the words he spoke seem unlikely to generate that description as well.
As far as "beautiful language" goes, well, yes, if beauty means form divorced from content, sure. But the most beautiful language, especially in this context - of a leader speaking to his people, exhorting them, promising them his best - serves its form and comes from it inseparably.
It would be illuminating to see how much of what he said the President actually wrote, if he wrote any of it at all. And if, as is most likely, he wrote virtually none of it, then what is Heineman praising? Aside from Bush's delivery.

Julie A Hofmann - 1/23/2005

is at the Guardian

Stephen Tootle - 1/23/2005

Jonathan, I went back and read the Hamby statement and I am not sure what you are driving at. Could you go a little further with this?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/22/2005

I would agree with you that Hamby is probably closer to the mark. Until that last line..... That's where things get sticky. "Operational meaning" indeed: does he seriously think that their attention will be diverted from oil-rich nations? Not that there aren't plenty of those with democracy issues....

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