Tod Lindberg

Bush’s second inaugural

Posted by Tod Lindberg on January 25, 2005

The Washington Times

Let’s see, how did that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ditty go? Ah yes, “anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance.” This has resonance not merely in terms of coping with the prospect of dying, but also with regard to coping with George W. Bush. In what I suppose is progress, his critics seem to be making the passage from “anger” into “denial.” His second inaugural address last week was intellectually the richest such speech since Lincoln’s second, to which it bears comparison. Lincoln wrote his own, of course, and that will always be taken into consideration. On the other hand, it is the essence of Mr. Bush’s claim that the call of freedom is something everyone yearns for and can hear – and something more and more people recognize that everyone yearns for and can hear (the latter being the neglected critical point).

Mr. Bush does not claim that this notion is original to him, since it is not. Jesus and Hegel have already done the heavy lifting on freedom. Mr. Bush is working themes from the New Testament and the “Philosophy of History.” Once you get that theirs is the point you need to get, everything you say on freedom is accordingly going to be somewhat derivative. What matters is that the American president has offered an entirely competent description of universal freedom and said that’s the side we’re on.

Well, we all know how Mr. Bush has been met by anger. His political opponents, who come from the more introspective of the two parties, have not only been angry but have carefully examined their emotional state and identified it correctly as anger – justifiable anger, thank you very much.

But this speech, in which Mr. Bush laid out what he believes in and how he wants to lead, namely, away from tyranny in the direction of more freedom, was a hard one to be angry at. What are you supposed to say? “How dare he come out in favor of freedom.” So the main response from critics of all kinds has been to say, of course he doesn’t really mean it.

Thus we have the proposition that the speech was so much boilerplate, sonorous high-minded rhetoric signifying nothing, of a sort familiar from previous presidents. Or, less grudgingly, that it sounds good, but Mr. Bush’s mixed record in favor of promoting freedom calls his sincerity into question. Or that, of course, when it comes down to Russia, China, Pakistan and oil, he will still allow national interest to trump freedom promotion (some deploring this prognosis, others finding it reassuring).

Finally, and best of all, the ultimate Washington reassurance: after-the-fact statements from anonymous administration officials that the speech did not signal a shift in policy. For reasons that are mysterious, even George H.W. Bush grabbed a microphone to downplay the policy significance of the speech. (On the other hand, this must have been a hard week for him.) Well, I suppose somebody in the administration had to tell China and Taiwan that the speech didn’t mean we think Taiwan should declare independence this week. But anybody who thinks the speech lacks policy salience is at precisely stage two, denial, of coming to terms with the overwhelming existential fact that is George W. Bush.

Consider the case of Ukraine, where Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in as president after a bloodless democratic revolution fully supported by the United States and our European allies (indeed, promoted among others by nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. government funding). A prudent man might have reasoned differently: That with so much at stake between the United States and Russia and with Russia’s leader so heavily vested in the outcome in Ukraine, it would be best to stay on the sidelines, or even to warn off those who might take to the streets of Kiev in protest.

Such a prudent man was the first President Bush. In 1991, a month before a referendum on Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, which ultimately passed with 90 percent of the vote, the elder Mr. Bush traveled to Kiev. There, he gave a speech. Far from celebrating the courageous aspiration of the Ukraine people for their freedom, he instead took occasion to warn them that they should not let their aspirations devolve into “suicidal nationalism.” The great William Safire (we’ll miss you, Bill) immortally dubbed it the “chicken Kiev” speech.

That is the sort of speech this President Bush will never give. He was not paralyzed over the Orange Revolution by his relationship with Vladimir Putin, nor by the fact that Leonid Kuchma, who tried to steal the election for his favored candidate, had dispatched Ukrainian troops to Iraq. He saw freedom stirring, and he knew which side he was on.

That’s the model. Go ask the freedom-fighters around the world if they thought Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address was nothing but boilerplate, with little promise of follow-up, signaling no shift in policy. They know better.

I wonder what “bargaining” will look like.

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