January 21, 2005

Conservatives Against Bush's Speech

Marc Comtois
PROEM: Before proceeding, you really should read President Bush's Inaugural Address. I originally posted the first part of this post (in slightly different form) here, but, well, there's more traffic here at Anchor Rising!

Peggy Noonan thought the President's Inaugural Address did not have the right tone.
The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike. Rhetorically, it veered from high-class boilerplate to strong and simple sentences, but it was not pedestrian. George W. Bush's second inaugural will no doubt prove historic because it carried a punch, asserting an agenda so sweeping that an observer quipped that by the end he would not have been surprised if the president had announced we were going to colonize Mars.
There were two particular points on which she seemed to fault the President's speech. First, she didn't fully agree with the theory of history he outlined.
[T]he administration sees history as dynamic and changeable, not static and impervious to redirection or improvement. That is the Bush administration way, and it happens to be realistic: History is dynamic and changeable. On the other hand, some things are constant, such as human imperfection, injustice, misery and bad government.
I believe she allowed her more realist-conservative side to govern her analysis, as evidenced by her above comment that "some things are constant, such as human imperfection, injustice, misery and bad government." Yes, that is so. But that shouldn't stop us from attempting to change or help where we can. To the President, the spread of freedom is the best method to do just that, whether it sounds too idealistic or not. This leads to the second problem Ms. Noonan seemed to have.

I think what was was particularly troubling to her stemmed from her own belief, as expressed repeatedly in the column, that the President was proposing to make Earth like Heaven.
This world is not heaven. . .

The president's speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched speech. . .

It seemed a document produced by a White House on a mission. . .

. . . Ending tyranny in the world? Well that's an ambition, and if you're going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth.
I think she was being oversensitive to the religious imagery that the President wove throughout the speech as he attempted to explain his ideology of freedom. While she has the (correct) notion that Earth is not and cannot be Heaven, I think she is misreading the President's intentions. I don't think he wants liberty to spread so that we can make Heaven on Earth. I will grant Ms. Noonan that there is something of the missionary in the President's speech. As such, perhaps his larger goal is to extend liberty and freedom to all men so that they can worry less about their worldly problems and begin thinking more about what comes After. When men don't have to worry about food, shelter, or being killed, they can turn their minds from the physical to the metaphysical, in whatever form it may take.

Ms. Noonan also commented that, "The speech did not deal with specifics--9/11, terrorism, particular alliances, Iraq. It was, instead, assertively abstract." To me, such things are best left to the upcoming State of the Union speech. The world doesn't watch State of the Union speeches. (Heck, few Americans watch them!), so the President chose to express his ideals in a forum in which he knew the world would be watching. Thus, I'd venture he's saving more specific proposals for the State of the Union Address.

Finally, Ms. Noonan thinks that the speech, especially the ending --"Renewed in our strength--tested, but not weary--we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom."--, was "over the top." She chalks this up to a White House suffering from "mission inebriation." Further, she "wonders if they shouldn't ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get more securely grounded" and offers that "[t]he most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not." Again, I disagree with Ms. Noonan's premise that the President proposed that, through universal liberty, we can make Heaven on Earth.

Overall, she seemed a bit deaf to what the average person heard in the President's speech. Why? Perhaps she has heard, and written, too many speeches herself and can't help but apply a professional's critical ear and eye to them. Perhaps she has been too long in the New York/Washington corridor among the other wonks and has become too surrounded by the clarion call of "NUANCE!!" to resist applying the standard herself. Whatever the reason, I just think she got this one wrong. Doesn't mean I'll stop reading her though.

We must remember that one of the special qualities of men is that we aspire to tasks that many believe are impossible. Yet, we all need a reason to take on these tasks and usually our motivation is tied to self-interest. It takes inspiration to motivate us to look beyond our own desires to attempt something for a higher cause. Yesterday, President Bush attempted to provide that inspiration. He reminded that there are few more noble causes than extending our hands to other men, half a world away, so that they can experience freedom of both body and soul.

UPDATE: It seems William F. Buckley has also cast a slightly disapproving eye at the President's speech, mostly based on its linguistic style. Well, at the risk of quibbling with another brilliant mind, I'd have to say that few regular folk can approach Mr. Buckley's ability to analyze the linguistic and epistemological inconsistencies of a speech. Few would even think to try. Here's a taste of Mr. Buckley's weighty analysis:
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”?
Yikes. Great stuff for us pointy-head types, but again, I don't think the Average Joe would even attempt to subject the President's speech to a microscope with the resolution of Mr. Buckley's. To employ an analogy: Mr. Buckley is at MIT, most of us are in Jr. High Science class.

I guess I can take some comfort from the fact that Ken Masugi at Claremont seems to approve of the speech. Masugi notes that the tones were more Lincolnian than Wilsonian and calls on Harry Jaffa to bolster his case.

Finally, James Taranto takes exception with those who think the President' s speech was too idealistic (see above).
[T]hose who fault Bush for an excess of idealism, or an insufficiency of realism, are not grappling with the conceptual breakthrough of his speech, which is to declare the idealism-realism dichotomy a false choice. A key passage:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
The lesson Bush drew from Sept. 11 is that "realism" is unrealistic--that the "stability" that results from an accommodation with tyranny is illusory. To Bush, there is no fundamental conflict between American ideals and American interests; by promoting the former, we secure the latter. Maybe he'll turn out to be wrong, but for now the burden ought to be on those who, in the wake of Sept. 11, hold to a pre-9/11 view of what is "realistic."

Noonan is right that "ending tyranny in the world" is a fantastically ambitious aspiration, one that isn't going to be realized anytime soon. But Bush didn't promise to do it in the next four years or even in our lifetimes. He said it was "the ultimate goal" and "the concentrated work of generations."
The President made this speech to present the case for a cause greater than protection our own self-interest. At the same time, he showed that our self-interest depended on pursuing that higher cause.

UPDATE II: I forgot to mention that Victor Hanson also approved of the President's tone. I would also hazard that, given his most recent article, that Norman Podhoretz does too, but that is only speculation. Finally, it also looks like some of the folks at the Weekly Standard, particularly William Kristol and Joseph Bottum, also believe the President's speech was historic. (Granted, David Gelernter gives in to the "darkness" of linguistic analysis, but he quibbles over the words while he agrees with the meaning behind them).

This will be it for updating this post. If necessary, I will compile a new post to sum up any further arguments over the speech as they come to light. I expect such will be the case.
Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I am usually in agreement with people like Peggy Noonan and Wm F Buckley, but almost get a sense from their criticisms of Bush's address that they would not proffer such a style - Noonan having been a speech writer for reagan, and Buckley, well, a speechmaker for the world. No flies on them, really, but I, personally, find myself more in agreement with Taranto. Nonetheless, a great analysis Justin. You have an excellent blog.

Posted by: Chuck Nevola at January 22, 2005 8:13 PM

Chuck, I agree with your take that Noonan and Buckley seemed to be arguing toward a different style over the specific substance. I should have included that in the post. Thanks for the kind words regarding the piece...even if it was I, and not the famous Mr. Katz ;) who wrote it!

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 22, 2005 8:22 PM

Sorry, Marc, I must have had sleepy seeds in my eyes. I also just noticed this morning that the post is on your blog, Ocean State Blogger, as well. Both you and Justin do a terrific service to the state.

Posted by: Chuck Nevola at January 23, 2005 8:45 AM