Politics & Policy

The Theme Is Freedom

Reflections on the inauguration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is a version of a piece written for the inauguration guidebook.

From the perspective of 2005, the year 2000 seems very distant. We had a presidential campaign that year, the squeakingest in our history. The election took place on November 7, but was not resolved until December 12. Five weeks later, George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd president.

Mr. Bush–the governor of Texas–ran principally as a reform candidate. He was for reforming basically everything: education, the tax code, the military, health care, Social Security. This last was known as “the third rail of American politics.” The governor’s opponents–and some of his friends–warned that he would be fried on this rail. But the governor persisted, saying, “I’m runnin’ for a reason.”

Governor Bush also campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” a term that set many conservatives’ teeth on edge. These conservatives took it as a slap. Sen. Phil Gramm, the governor’s fellow Texas Republican, said memorably, “Freedom is compassionate!” President Bush likes to define “compassionate conservatism” as the belief that “government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives.”

Throughout the 2000 campaign, the governor spoke repeatedly of a “humble” presidency, the need for “humility” in the world. He pointed to a quieter period. Events would have a mind of their own.

President Bush’s First Inaugural Address provides interesting reading today–interesting in light of what the president is trying to accomplish in what we know as the War on Terror.

America’s “story,” said President Bush on January 20, 2001, “is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slaveholding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.”

Some moments later, he said, “Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.”

Later on, “Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty, because, in a time of peace, the stakes of our debates appear small.” Ponder that!

And, “We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors.”

On the domestic front, the president made a (characteristically) bold declaration: “We will reform Social Security and Medicare, sparing our children from struggles we have the power to prevent.” Notice that this concept of “sparing” recurs. One does hard work now, allowing future generations to breathe a little easier.

In his first term, the president did pretty much what he wanted on education, and he cut taxes energetically, promising something more like structural reform in the second term. Medicare, he expanded, to the consternation of some in his party, but with an eye toward what he calls “the ownership society”: New “health savings accounts,” for example, would give people greater say in their own care. An attempt at Social Security reform, he saved for this second term.

In his convention speech last summer, he pressed his goal of an ownership society, linking it to “security, and dignity, and independence.”

But what of this War on Terror? Again, bluntness: “If America shows uncertainty and weakness . . . the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch.” And “we know that September 11 requires our country to think differently: We must–and we will–confront threats to America before it is too late.”

Whatever the topic–in the domestic or the foreign realm–the theme was freedom. (John Dos Passos, the novelist who was once a Communist, then one of the greatest anti-Communists, published later in his life a collection called “The Theme Is Freedom.”) Said the president, “The story of America”–ah, the story again!–”is the story of expanding liberty: an ever-widening circle, constantly growing to reach further and include more. Our nation’s founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: In the world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom.”

The president and his band like to refer to this presidency as a “transformational” one. Hence–in the convention speech–”I believe in the transformational power of liberty: The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom.”

The present inauguration is one during wartime, although the War on Terror, to be sure, is a peculiar–and peculiarly daunting–kind of war. When we think of such inaugurations, which do we think of? Chiefly Lincoln’s second (1865) and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth (1945). Lincoln’s speech is well known, chiseled on walls, hearts, and minds. It is the one including the famous line, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .”

FDR’s is less well known, but highly interesting, given our current situation. It was very brief, in part because it was that president’s fourth.

He began, “We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage–of our resolve–of our wisdom–our essential democracy.”

“We shall strive for perfection,” said the president. “We shall not achieve it immediately–but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes–but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.”

And how about this? “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.”

FDR ended by invoking “the Almighty God,” who “has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth.” And “He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world. So, we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly–to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men–to the achievement of His will, to peace on earth.”

Roosevelt, as much as Lincoln, knew when to bend his knee.

You recall a statement purporting to be an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Cursed or not, we live in interesting times, and the challenge is to make them less interesting and more secure–more anchored to that blessed duo that Orwell identified as law and liberty.


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