To expect glory from an inaugural address is to be disappointed, and with most presidents, disappointment becomes even more inevitable with repetition. What was notable about George W. Bush's second inaugural speech was how he veered between the desultory and the delusional. Reciting the painfully crafted words of his speechwriters without passion, the president sounded oddly unmoved by their skyscraping rhetoric -- which, for roughly 20 minutes, encouraged us to soar above the bloody troubles of our "reality-based" world.
Now, there is nothing wrong with a ceremonial interlude of inspirational escapism every four years, even if the delivery falls flat. And there is nothing wrong with appealing to humanity's shared aspiration for liberty. Besides, these are traditions to be upheld. Like many of his predecessors, Bush clearly believes that on such a formal and solemn occasion, world-historical figures such as he should attempt high-flown and florid phrases that will echo in eternity. Or something like that. Anyway, specifics are a downer.
Mentioning Iraq by name, for instance, would have bummed out his cheering Republican audience, clapping their gloved hands in the frozen capital. So instead he referred to the "tens of millions [who] have achieved their freedom" because "we have acted."
Yet however unmoored from the bloody and expensive realities of life, the inaugural speech was not without political purpose. Its authors hoped to convince Americans, increasingly troubled by the costs of a belligerent foreign policy, that Bush has been acting in accordance with the nation's best traditions and implicit endorsement of the deity. They also sought to suggest, without offering any specific commitments, that somehow Bush will ameliorate the excesses of his first term, while pursuing the same policies.
The Iraqis, if they were listening, must have wondered what Bush was celebrating, aside from his own electoral victory. They have been learning the hard way that liberty is meaningless without security. Indeed, people in Iraq laugh bitterly whenever they speak of freedom and democracy. They are still hungry and live in fear.
Leaving aside the false premises the president cited in going to war against Iraq, his administration's incompetence has created an environment in that country closer to anarchy than freedom. He might at least have acknowledged the Iraqis' intense suffering and the enormous price they have paid for his mistakes. Instead he merely flattered his American audience for its "patience." In real life, Bush knows that patience is running out, with nearly 60 percent of Americans now expressing grave doubts about the war.
There was something quite unreal in the president's message to the rest of the world. When he spoke of America's opposition to tyranny and commitment to democratic reform everywhere, he wasn't talking about China, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, where realpolitik has consistently undermined libertarian principle. He issued his blustery warning to "outlaw regimes," a category that includes small and isolated targets such as North Korea, Iran, Myanmar and Cuba.
And when he spoke to America's traditional friends and allies, assuring them that "we honor your friendship, we rely on your counsel, and we depend on your help," he must not have been addressing "Old Europe," whose people don't believe his soothing words and remain deeply alienated from us. "Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies," he said, apparently without understanding how he has achieved that precise objective.
His effort to link his worldwide crusade with his campaign to dismantle Social Security is almost too silly and bizarre to refute. His speechwriters believe in argument by assertion and so had Bush say that privatization derives from the same noble impulse that first created Social Security, the Homestead Act and the GI Bill of Rights. All three were "big government" programs, of course, that are anathema to Bush and his conservative cohorts. And nobody is supposed to notice that by privatizing Social Security, the president proposes to load future generations with debt while slashing their benefits. How that would serve the "broader definition of liberty" he has yet to explain in detail.
Patriotism, not detailed policy, is the stuff of inaugurations -- and to be authentic, patriotism must be inclusive and unifying rather than partisan. That is why the most poignant moment in Bush's inaugural address came when he promised yet again to unite rather than divide.
"We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes -- and I will strive in good faith to heal them," said the president. "Yet those divisions do not define America. We felt the unity and fellowship of our nation when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart."
That curious combination of cynicism and sincerity is typical Bush. He seems to believe that he can revive the "unity and fellowship" that arose after Sept. 11 with a few words at his inauguration. But like so much else in his speech, that too is fantasy.