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For President's Day: Some Presidential Comparisons

leah's picture

What follows is a post I wrote some time ago, shortly after Bush's 2nd Inaugural. I thought it might be worth reposting on this particular day, since it includes a comparison of both Lincoln and Truman to Bush, and seeks to discuss political rhetoric and its discontents. I also thought it might be a pleasant respite from our current obsession with the Democratic Presidential primary, as well as offering a frame for contemplating the ruin Bush's second terms has wrecked not only on the country, but on his own likely historical reputation.

Dubya's Dubious Second Inaugural:The Bad Faith Of George W. Bush

Four years ago, at the time of Bush's 1st Inaugural Address, despite the bitterness left behind by the manner in which the 2000 presidential election was decided, despite the "winner's" inability to find a graceful way to acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances that had brought him to the Presidency, or even an ungraceful way, swept up in the grandeur of that peaceful transfer of power without which no democratic republic can long endure, I was able to acknowledge the surprising power of some of Bush's rhetoric, and to feel some hope that he actually meant some tiny fraction of what he was saying.

Nunca mas, as they have had occasion to say in Argentina.

Bush made it easy last Thursday; everything about his second inaugural address, its grandiosity, its simple-minded diction and biblical intimations, the insistent refusal to acknowledge complexity, its wildly overstated and pitifully under-defined ambitions, its ahistorical smugness, struck me as downright preposterous, which will explain my amazement at the credulity with which the speech was received; yes, there were some reservations expressed at the practical implications and applicability of such a pure statement of American idealism, but rather less comment willing to point out that the speech's efficacy as a statement of policy could be measured in inverse proportion to its almost demented insistence that ideas exist in some ethereal space untouched by anything as gritty and unpleasant as a fact.

Instead, once again we were asked to wonder at the poetic eloquence of Michael Gerson's prose, and if we happened to be liberals, admonished not to get too picky about the fathoms-deep divide between Bush's rhetoric and the reality of his policies, lest we peg ourselves, once again, as outside the great and grand ideas upon which our republic stands.

Chris Suellentrop, for instance, writing in Slate, parses the speech to bolster his own praise for it as a wonderful piece of oratory, credits it with announcing a second Bush doctrine, (the first, preemptive war, this second, the peaceful pursuit of democracy everywhere, and nary a hint the two doctrines might contradict one another), then proceeds to question the validity of the speech's central thesis, which strikes Chris as being as simple-minded as the formulation by "some" on the left, that 9/11 was caused by poverty, and then finishes by warning liberals -- well, unlike Mr. Suellentrop, I shall let him speak for himself:


The abolition of tyranny is a worthy goal for an American government, even if it is unattainable. Liberals, who will be inclined to quarrel with Bush's message, should have no objections to the values Bush identified as the guiding principles for his second administration. The issue is whether he really has any intention of promoting democracy in Russia, China, and the Mideast when promoting it comes into conflict with other economic and security interests of the United States. There is much reason for skepticism here, such as Bush's policy in relation to Saudi Arabia, Tibet, and Chechnya during his first term. But rather than criticizing Bush's speech, Democrats should nod vigorously and then hold him to it.

Really now, Suellentrop, when has George W. Bush ever been held to account for anything he's said as President; in order for that to happen we'd have to have a whole other kind of journalist than the likes of you.

Similar remarks could be heard on the cable news chat shows from people like Andrea Mitchell and Howard Fineman - Bush's inaugural address was a rhetorical triumph whose only problem was that he'd laid out such an ambitious foreign policy that now he could and would be criticized whenever he might seem not to be backing democrcy anywhere in the world; like Chris Sullentrop, all these commentators appeared to accept the notion that values exist exclusively in the words used to describe and define them.

I think it probable that George W. Bush believes he meant every word that his speechwriters cooked up for him, although I think it just as probable that he also enjoys the malicious pleasure of believing that his ringing claims of idealism are a thumb in the eye of all those "elitist" liberals. In fact, one of the most unremarked upon aspect of his stint as President is Bush's odd relationship to words. No, not those tiresome Bushisms, although Mark Crispin Miller has shown us brilliantly how revealing they are of Bush's true self. What I refer to is this President's strangely reverent approach to his own language, in which I include rhetoric supplied to him by his speechwriters; once he states a fact or an idea, once he promises this or that policy, it's as if what he has said is now true, by the sheer force of the fact that he's proclaimed it so.

For Bush, language has the power to embody that which it describes, whether or not what he says is true at the time, or will ever actually become true. And language has the power to disembody that which was previously claimed as true, but has now become inconvenient. That belief in the corporeal power of language is sustained by the generalities in which the President's speech writers cast what pass for his ideas.

The internal contradictions of his 2nd Inaugural address were on view right at its beginning:

On this day, prescribed by law and marked by ceremony, we celebrate the durable wisdom of our Constitution, and recall the deep commitments that unite our country. I am grateful for the honor of this hour, mindful of the consequential times in which we live, and determined to fulfill the oath that I have sworn and you have witnessed.

At this second gathering, our duties are defined not by the words I use, but by the history we have seen together. For a half century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical - and then there came a day of fire.

Having invoked "the deep commitments that unite our country," he immediately goes on to clearly imply that those deep commitments were, in fact, on "sabbitical" during the eight years of the Clinton administration, and quite possibly the four years of his father's.

Thus does this President divide, even while he is invoking that which unites us, aided in this feat by the vague definition of what that "that" might be, no matter the strained rhetorical flourish of "America standing watch on distant borders." And thus do Bush's scriptwriters divert our attention away from the inconvenient fact of exactly on whose watch "came" that "day of fire," while attempting, no doubt, to draw an echo from Lincoln's great second inaugural, with its genuinely biblical sweep, and the tragic simplicity of its famous, "...and the war came."

Without success.

Instead of a Lincolnesque moment, we get the typical graceless, ungenerous Dubya stump speech moment in which all blame for mistakes made accrues to everyone but the man who insists that he is in command, and the typical neo-con moment in which history is used to turn history on its head.

No one at the White House appears to have noticed that Lincoln wasn't attempting to obscure responsibility:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

You see the war came not out of the blue, not like a tsunami, unexpected, inexplicable, unaccountable; the war came because men willed it to come, including that man among men, Abraham Lincoln.

When I referred to the president's writers cooking up this inaugural address, I meant to suggest something more than flippant disrespect for their concotions; many of the points given to the President were carefully derived to answer specific persistent criticisms of George W's foreign policy, without having to mention any of them. So, in answer to the many critiques of the Bush neo/con policy of waging preventive wars, the president noted on Thursday that the task of spreading freedom around the world will not be primarily the "task of arms," and to preempt the likely and often made charge that the neocon/Bush vision is an imperial one that embraces a Pax Americana to be imposed on the world, ready or not, Mr. Bush asserted, "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way." And how will this be accomplished?

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.

Well, that's mighty white of you, Mr. Bush, but really now, when has any American post-WW 2 administration ever made such a pretence. Yes, America has often looked the other way when faced with the depredations of human rights carried on by allies deemed necessary at the time, often wrongly, but pretend the oppressed welcome their oppression? Who does this president think he is? Noam Chomsky? Howard Zinn? The closest I can come to such an attitude actually being expressed was that part of the human rights policy of the Reagan administration defined by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, which posited that traditional authoritarian rulers, like Somoza in Nicaragua, or the Argentine junta, were tolerable in the context of the cold war because such leaders, while not democratic and sometimes despotic, were a bullwark against Marxist insurgents, who would bring a far worse kind of anti-democratic regime than these ancien ones. But now I'm making an observation historical in nature, like the copious warnings about Bin Ladin's desire to strike on American soil were historical in nature, according to our new Secretary of State to be, and we know what this administration does when faced with anything "historical." (The correct answer, "nothing." )

Who could be surprised, then, that this inaugural address, like the President it celebrates, is more comfortable with eternal verities than with historical ones, no matter his prior statement that "our duties are defined not by the words I use, but by the history we have seen together?"

Nowhere to be found in the text are specific references to what has happened in the four years of Bush's first term, no mention of Iraq, or invasion, or occupation, or preemption, or Saddam, no talk of the crucial nature of democracy in the Middle East, or the Bush roadmap for peace between Palestinians and Israelis, certainly not of torture, nothing about Al Queda, or the war on terror, or even any mention of terrorists and terrorism itself. Understandably, considering that there are almost no specific successes to be pointed to. So the president and his speechwriters content themselves with a big think, strategic vision; at the heart of the speech is this idea, elucidated through-out the rest of the speech.:

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.

What liberal, what American today, would disagree? This is hardly a remarkable formulation, having been the commanlity which has linked the foreign policy of the United States under all post-WW 2 administrations stretching back even to FDR, though he didn't quite make it into the post-war era. That is not how it is presented in Bush's inaugural, however. No indeed.

Instead, in an ahistoricism that is truly astounding, it is 9/11, Bush's personal brush with greatness, that is referenced as the point of discovery for this idea.

We have seen our vulnerability - and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny - prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder - violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.


America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

Not to pick nits, but the Declaration of Independence does not say that the dignity and rights of mankind derive from its image having been made in the image of God, and of his son, Jesus, which is surely the unspoken reference being made here. The Declaration locates the inalienable rights of mankind in mankind's own ability to reason from observation and to thus arrive at the self-evidentiary nature of the truth that mankind was endowed by its "creator," whether that be any particular God, or a long line of DNA, with such rights.

We know that even if Bush is unaware of historical precedent his speechwriters are when nothing less than Harry Truman's enunciation in front of a joint session of congress in 1948 of what became "the Truman doctrine" is echoed in a line like this one:

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

But what post-war President would have the arrogance to pronounce our ultimate goal to be the ending of world tyranny? To have such an expansive goal is to have no goal at all. "Freedom" and "liberty" are everywhere in this inaugural address, but nowhere defined, contextualized, or even tied securely to historical reality. In the United States of Bush, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, Truman's committment to the United Nations, the Berlin Airlift, the Declaration of Human Rights, the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO, Kennedy's Peace Corps, his Alliance for Progress, his steps toward a Test Ban Treaty, the interventions in Korea and VietNam, Jimmy Carter's emphasis on human rights, the intervention against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and many other policies, some wise, some which proved to be both hypocritical and deeply unwise, simply don't exist.

Has there ever been an administration so besotted with its own arrogance?

In contrast, here is Truman speaking to that joint session of congress to ask that an emergency appropriation be made in response to a plea for help from the elected government of Greece:

I am fully aware of the broad implications involved if the United States extends assistance to Greece and Turkey, and I shall discuss these implications with you at this time. One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. This was a fundamental issue in the war with Germany and Japan. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations.
To ensure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations, The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed upon free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace, and hence the security of the United States.
The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation in violation of the Yalta agreement in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments.
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.
I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.
The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred. But we cannot allow changes in the status quo in violation of the Charter of the United Nations by such methods as coercion, or by such subterfuges as political infiltration. In helping free and independent nations to maintain their freedom, the United States will be giving effect to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Now I'm aware that our policy in Greece did not, in the end, produce democratic governance. But in order to get a sense of how different is the rhetoric of this President from the rhetoric that has come before him, I would still recommend you read Truman's remarkable speech, along with his 1949 inaugural address, both of which are rooted in the historical struggle then going on, and yet still manage to honor, in the way their arguments are made, the great democratic principles that both speeches seek to protect. Reading them will explain why President Bush's essentially phony rhetoric is not to be applauded.

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Submitted by lambert on

[dodges zuchinni]

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.