A Masterpiece of American Oratory

Article excerpt

GEORGE W. BUSH has been "misunderestimated" so many times that this sardonic neologism has forced its way into the American language and will forever be associated with his name. Yet never has the judgment of his performance been so wildly off the mark as in the response to his second Inaugural Address. Naturally his political enemies were quick to deride the speech. But this time a large contingent of his conservative supporters also joined in the cacophonous chorus of denigration.

What brought all this wrath down on the second Inaugural was the President's decision to use it as an occasion for reaffirming and rededicating both himself and the nation to the ideas he had embraced in the wake of 9/11 and that have collectively come to be known as the Bush Doctrine. But rather than taking us step by step through its various components, as he had done in a number of previous (and equally misunderestimated) speeches, he now redoubled the provocation by subsuming them all into "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Having for my part listened with growing awe to the President as he showed how this goal grows out of the moral and spiritual imperatives of the American past, how it confronts the urgencies of the American present, and how it ensures the security of the American future, and then having confirmed my immediate reaction by repeated readings of the text, I was astonished by what the conservative commentariat had to say about the speech in the days immediately following its delivery.

Of course I knew very well that some eminent conservatives-most notably William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will-had all along been discreetly uneasy about the Bush Doctrine, and particularly the element of it he singled out for special emphasis in this speech. I was also well aware that a faction existed on the right whose most prominent member was Patrick J. Buchanan and whose view of the Bush Doctrine went beyond uneasiness into an outspoken hostility that could hardly be exceeded even by the sheer hatred pervading the left. Consequently I was not in the least surprised to find both of these groups expressing dismay over the substance of the speech. On the other hand, because they were both led by people who were very good writers themselves and who had also been capable in the past of appreciating good writing even when produced by their political opponents, I was a bit surprised by their (willful?) blindness to its literary qualities.

Even more surprising was that the same blindness had afflicted several supporters of the Bush Doctrine like David Frum, Peter Robinson, and Peggy Noonan who, as former presidential speechwriters themselves, might also have been expected to recognize literary distinction when it was staring them in the face. Yet Frum dismissed the speech as "a disappointing work" with "high fat content" that should have been reduced by careful editing; Robinson grudgingly conceded that it was "well written" and "in places actually beautiful," but on the whole it made him "mighty nervous"; and for Noonan, too, its "moments of eloquence" were overwhelmed by "high-class boilerplate" and "over the top" rhetoric that left her "with a bad feeling and reluctant dislike."

WITH THESE CRITICISMS IN MIND, I have just read the speech yet again, and I am more convinced than ever that it will ultimately be acclaimed as a masterpiece of American oratory, worthy of a place beside Lincoln's second Inaugural-which, incidentally, was also widely derided immediately after being delivered.1 To theAfew YorkHerald, it was "a little speech of 'glittering generalities' used only to fill in the program," and the Chicago Times "did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile... in literary construction...."2 To us today such judgments seem puzzling, and even laughable, and so, I believe, will it some day be the case with the attacks on Bush's second Inaugural. …