Saturday, January 22, 2005

George W. Bush 's Place in History

Much has been made of George W. Bush's Second Inaugural Address on Thursday. It has been dismissed by some as more or less inconsequential and lacking in specifics. By others (incredibly enough, Peggy Noonan), the speech has been described as far too idealistic and with not nearly enough reality. In an earlier post, I noted that many of the early returns on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in November 1863 were also negative:
The immediate reaction of the crowd left even Lincoln with the impression that it had been a failure. To his friend Ward Lamon he remarked, "It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed." Many newspaper reporters in attendance at Lincoln's address panned the speech. A Harrisburg, Pa., newspaper editorial stated, "We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the Nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of." That same day, the Chicago Times opined that "the cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."

Not all the reviewers were convinced, however:

The editor of the Chicago Tribune, however, offered a different perspective: "The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man."
I think, so too, may President Bush's remarks be honored, if the United States pursues the goals to which its Chief Executive dedicated it on January 20, 2005.

These remarks are nothing short of extraordinary. They are the logical extension of the ideals first synthesized by the Founding Fathers over 200 years ago in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For 150 years following the first utteranceof that famous principle, the United States was essentially powerless to export these values. Restricted at first by British hegemony, then torn asunder by Civil War and Reconstruction, we were rightly concentrated on consolidating our own political future. With the advent of the 20th century, we were forced to turn outward, to blunt the aggressive power of tyranny in other lands and then, as the President put it:
For a half century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical- and then there came a day of fire.
The 1990s can, in retrospect, be seen in the continuum of our labors as a catching of breath, if you will. September 11, however, served as a very poignant reminder that, though collectivist tyranny was on the wane, there exists no shortage of those who would restore it, under any number of guises: communism, radical environmentalism / anti-globalism and Islamo-fascism.

President Bush's speech is the clearest enunciation in at least a generation (with the exception of Ronald Reagan) of the principles that differentiated the American (Lockeian "limited government") Revolution from the French (Rousseauian "government as Platonic Guardian") Revolution (from which most forms of tyrannical governments today can claim descent). If the Lockeian view -- that governments are of and by the governed -- is to prevail over the Rousseauian view -- that governments are for the governed, but of the governing (however well intentioned) -- then it is clear that the United States must convince the rest of humanity of the of the veracity of that principle.

That was the thrust of President Bush's Second Inaugural Address.

While I certainly agree with Peggy Noonan that it is folly to think that we can create "Heaven on Earth", is it not also foolhardy and selfish not to try to export to the oppressed peoples of this planet the values which have made this country great ?

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