January 21, 2005,
The inaugural address was in several respects confusing. The arresting feature of it was of course the exuberant idealism. But one wonders whether signals were crossed in its production, and a lead here is some of the language used.
The commentators divulged that the speech was unusual especially in one respect, namely that President Bush turned his attention to it the very next day after his reelection. Peggy Noonan and Karen Hughes, speaking in different television studios, agreed that this was unusual. Presidents attach great importance to inaugural addresses, but they don’t, as a rule, begin to think about them on the first Wednesday after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But in this case, that is evidently what happened. And this leads the observer to wonder about some of the formulations that were used, and clumsiness that was tolerated.
Mr. Bush said that “whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny.” You can simmer in resentment, but not in tyranny. He said that every man and woman on this earth has “matchless value.” What does that mean? His most solemn duty as President, he said, was to protect America from “emerging threats.” Did he mean, guard against emerging threats? He told the world that “there can be no human rights without human liberty.” But that isn’t true. The acknowledgment of human rights leads to the realization of human liberty. “The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them.” What is a “habit of control”?
An inaugural address is a deliberate statement, not an improvisation. Having been informed about how long the president spent in preparing it, the listener is invited to pay special attention to its message and the language in which it is conveyed.
The speech was the most committed endorsement of international human liberty ever made at an inaugural ceremony. The president seemed to be saying that unless liberty survives elsewhere, our own is vulnerable. He said that U.S. policy is “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” But that, of course, other nations and other cultures will “find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”
The age-old aphorism says that hard cases make bad law. The meaning of this is that complexities piled on top of complexities can cause the governing law to gaggle in confusion. There is let’s demonstrate a law against murder. But how do you deal with the man who fired the bullet at the cuckolder in mid-stroke, egged on to do so by his daughter, who is suffering from a fatal illness? But even granted the difficulties in applying the Bush code everywhere, the American realist inevitably asked himself questions, upon hearing the soaring, Biblical rhetoric of the president. How to apply the presidential criteria?
Okay. Never mind the tyrannies in spotty little states in Africa. Those cases are so hard as to make very bad law. A foreign policy that insists on the hygiene of the Central African Republic may be asking too much.
But what about China? Is it U.S. policy to importune Chinese dissidents “to start on this journey of progress and justice”? How will we manifest our readiness to “walk at [their] side”?
China, so massive, is maybe too massive a challenge for our liberationist policy, even as the Central African Republic is too exiguous. Then what about Saudi Arabia? Here is a country embedded in oppression. Does President Bush really intend to make a point of this? Where? At the U.N.? At the Organization of African Unity? Will we refuse to buy Saudi oil?
The sentiments of President Bush are fine, and his sincerity was transparent. But in speaking about bringing liberty to the rest of the world, he could have gone at it more platonically: but this would have required him to corral his enthusiasm for liberty everywhere with appropriately moderate rhetoric.
This he seemed resolute in not doing. But the confusion in language in the speech itself leaves some listeners wondering whether last-minute thoughts were had, which failed to iron out the policy statements, even as they had failed to iron out the language.