I recently finished James Wolcott’s delightfully snarky Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror. There’s a chapter in there on Peggy Noonan which begins:
No matter what it says on the marriage certificate, Peggy Noonan is a bride of George W. Bush. He is the butch side of her, she the femme side of him, and together they are ideological lovebirds, united in holy sanctimony. They share the mission vision of world transformation through American might, subscribing to the same polarities of good and evil, innocence and guilt, love and hate. Both draw a line in the sand between those with us and those against us, seeing the world in black and white (even if Noonan’s prose style tends to misty watercolors)…
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.
A short and self-conscious preamble led quickly to the meat of the speech: the president’s evolving thoughts on freedom in the world. Those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty.
No one will remember what the president said about domestic policy, which was the subject of the last third of the text. This may prove to have been a miscalculation.
It was a foreign-policy speech. To the extent our foreign policy is marked by a division that has been (crudely but serviceably) defined as a division between moralists and realists–the moralists taken with a romantic longing to carry democracy and justice to foreign fields, the realists motivated by what might be called cynicism and an acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power–President Bush sided strongly with the moralists, which was not a surprise. But he did it in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance.
The administration’s approach to history is at odds with what has been described by a communications adviser to the president as the “reality-based community.” A dumb phrase, but not a dumb thought: He meant that the 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.
This world is not heaven.
The president’s speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. “The Author of Liberty.” “God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind . . . the longing of the soul.”
It seemed a document produced by a White House on a mission. The United States, the speech said, has put the world on notice: Good governments that are just to their people are our friends, and those that are not are, essentially, not. We know the way: democracy. The president told every nondemocratic government in the world to shape up. “Success in our relations [with other governments] will require the decent treatment of their own people.”
The speech did not deal with specifics–9/11, terrorism, particular alliances, Iraq. It was, instead, assertively abstract.
“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.” “Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self government. . . . Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” “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 the world.”
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.
There were moments of eloquence: “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.” “We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery.” And, to the young people of our country, “You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs.” They have, since 9/11, seen exactly that.
And yet such promising moments were followed by this, the ending of the speech. “Renewed in our strength–tested, but not weary–we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.”
This is–how else to put it?–over the top. It is the kind of sentence that makes you wonder if this White House did not, in the preparation period, have a case of what I have called in the past “mission inebriation.” A sense that there are few legitimate boundaries to the desires born in the goodness of their good hearts.
One wonders if they shouldn’t ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get more securely grounded. The most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not.
Is their honeymoon finally over?