The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Yet Another Reason to Celebrate William Safire's Departure

I was catching up on some newspaper reading this morning and came across a piece about Bush's second inaugural address (lower case intentional) by that now late (and not so great) columnist for the New York Times. In it, he claims that Bush's speech ranks among the 5 best second inaugurals ever. That there have only been 20 modifies this praise somewhat, but it certainly sticks on the way down the craw. I am particularly inspired to respond to this because last night I had occasion to see an episode of American Experience on PBS that focused on Lincoln - the closest thing we have to a civic saint in our culture. Safire admits that Lincoln's own effort is incomparable, but the contrast between the two inaugurals is telling both for the contrast in the humility with which Lincoln expressed himself, and the difference in historical circumstances. Safire's comments betray the myopia of the professinal speechwriter (as well as his political myopia) -- that a speech is to be judged by its words and structure outside of its historical context.

But the difference between a great speech and great speechwriting (usually contracted out these days of course - esp by the verbally challenged Shrub) rests in their historical context. Churchill's speech after Dunkirk is not significant for the parsing of his words or the rhythm of his syllables, but for the dark circumstances of Britain's defeat in France which surrounded the occasion of its delivery. Correspondingly, Lincoln's Second Inaugural (appropriately capitalized) is a relevant point of comparison with Bush's own effort not simply because of the rich language and biblical cadence (nor even its amazing humility), but because it was given at the apex of the brutally destructive Civil War, when bitter feelings were everywhere, where triumphalism was an easy lure, and where the historical significance of the struggle was apparent ( the 13th amendment having just been ratified - and the preservation of the union in response to armed rebellion against democratically-arrived-at-decision imminent).

Lincoln's speech derives its import because of these contrasts -- a bloody war over the freedom of a race, over the preservation of the principles of this country is met not with calls of revenge but for aggrieved northerners, many whom were mourning the loss of sons, brothers, and fathers, to welcome back into the fold of liberty their southern compatriots and to renew the American project together with them.

Bush's call for liberty in comparison is not only cynical and specious (liberty from what and for whom), but pales when thrown in the light of historical context. What great struggle? What great sacrifice? The war remains a war with a shifting purpose whose mission has been redefined into obscurity by all but the most dedicated pundits. It is a limited war. We apply no similar efforts to preserve the liberty of those in Darfur, or Iran, or China. Many of our supposed allies in the larger War on Terror don't even know what liberty means - witness Pakistan & Saudi Arabia. We are spreading freedom like we are rationing it from a jar of dwindling mayonaise, and of course, most oxymoronically, we are spreading freedom at the point of a gun which was fired without proper provocation. The expansion of freedom is a worthy goal and one almost all Americans share. But given the means by which and the situations in which Bush has chosen to demand freedom (as well as its apparently dim prospects both at home and abroad), the rejection of Bush's repeated argument by 54 million Americans is understandable.

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