The London newspaper editorialists put protective cover over their high praise for President Bush’s recent address at Whitehall Palace by insisting that it was much better than his usual speeches. It was, they said, clear, direct, substantive, a powerful tour d’horizon, evocative, and touched with understated, well-rendered humor. It was a triumph, they concluded–unlike his usual speeches.
A familiar refrain, this. Before any key event, press commentary on the upcoming performance of George W. Bush is nearly always dismissive. The president’s supposed faults are caricatured. Gloom about how poorly he will do is widespread. Then, virtually always, if the event is important enough, the president steps to the plate, gets a solid extra-base hit, and drives in a few more runs.
It was like this at his inaugural address–it had been like this at his address accepting the nomination of his party the summer before. He always does better than predicted. The opponents he has defeated in debates, the prognosticators of failure, and all his detractors, continue invincibly to “misunderestimate” him. And to cover over the reality of his triumphs with the veils of their own ironclad preconceptions.
I have just reviewed two collections of the president’s speeches since he has been in office, the first covering the first three months of his term (January 20–April 19, 2001), including his surprisingly praised inaugural address, and the second, which covers the painful year following September 11, 2001, that is, the first twelve months of the war against terrorism.
These 32 or more speeches compare favorably with any collection of Ronald Reagan’s best speeches. Consistency is their main virtue–a consistently high level of rhetorical power, satisfying to the soul as well as to the occasion. While some of Reagan’s speeches soared higher, others fell off the mark by being a little over-written. Reagan, of course, could pull off reading any speech well, when necessary bringing to bear just enough personal schmalz to carry off even the over-written ones with good effect. He could signal with a knowing nod that even if his words got a little fancy, he was still just a local boy from a small town in Illinois.
George W. is more plainspoken than Reagan, but capable of getting off quite moving and poetic lines of his own, when the occasion calls for it, as in his term it again and again has. On these occasions, W. usually (but not always) relies on shrewdly chosen words from the American tradition to carry him, whose sentiments he obviously feels keenly. Just behind his plainspokenness, one can see a serious, deeply convicted man. Accused in Britain of being “moralistic,” President Bush reminded a nationwide audience that it was from men like Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce, whose activist crusades swept slavery from the Atlantic, that Americans learned their morals, and from Britain that the Puritans in America snatched their moral fire.
American idealism and an American sense of history burn in his heart, as when he told the United Nations in New York (November 10, 2002): “We stand for the permanent hopes of humanity, and those hopes will not be denied….We did not ask for this mission, yet there is honor in history’s call….This calling is worthy of any life, and worthy of every nation. So let us go forward, confident, determined, and unafraid.”
Those last words capture much about this president: “Confident, determined, and unafraid.”
Hear him tell the paratroopers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky (November 21, 2001): “Thanks to you, the people of Afghanistan have the hope of a better life. Thanks to you, many Afghan women are walking in public again, and walking with dignity.” And then these concluding words: “Every one of you is dedicated to something greater than yourself. You put your country ahead of your comfort. You live by a code, and you fight for a cause. And I’m honored to be your Commander-in-Chief.”
Simple. Declarative. Straight from the shoulder–and straight to the proud military heart.
Everyone at Fort Campbell knew that President Bush was putting his whole presidency on the line. There were so many ways in which the Afghanistan campaign could have gone wrong. Afghanistan had bogged down whole Soviet armies for ten years. The troops from Fort Campbell and elsewhere had done miracles.
Just two months after that fateful September 11, the president told EDITOR’S NOTE: National Review’s collection of George W. Bush speeches can be purchased here
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.