It was an interesting Inauguration Day. Washington had warmed up, the swift storm of the previous day had passed, the sky was overcast but the air wasn’t painful in a wind-chill way, and the capital was full of men in cowboy hats and women in long furs. In fact, the night of the inaugural balls became known this year as The Night of the Long Furs.
Laura Bush’s beauty has grown more obvious; she was chic in shades of white, and smiled warmly. The Bush daughters looked exactly as they are, beautiful and young. A well-behaved city was on its best behavior, everyone from cops to doormen to journalists eager to help visitors in any way.
For me there was some unexpected merriness. In my hotel the night before the inauguration, all the guests were evacuated at 1:45 in the morning. There were fire alarms and flashing lights on each floor, and a public address system instructed us to take the stairs, not the elevators. Hundreds of people wound up outside in the slush, eventually gathering inside the lobby, waiting to find out what next.
The staff—kindly, clucking—tried to figure out if the fire existed and, if so, where it was. Hundreds of inaugural revelers wound up observing each other. Over there on the couch was Warren Buffet in bright blue pajamas and a white hotel robe. James Baker was in trench coat and throat scarf. I remembered my keys and eyeglasses but walked out without my shoes. After a while the “all clear” came, and hundreds of us stood in line for elevators to return to our rooms. Later that morning, as I entered an elevator to go to an appointment, I said, “You all look happier than you did last night.” A man said, “That was just a dream,” and everyone laughed.
* * *
The inauguration itself was beautiful to see—pomp, panoply, parades, flags and cannonades. America does this well. And the most poignant moment was the manful William Rehnquist, unable to wear a tie and making his way down the long marble steps to swear in the president. The continuation of democracy is made possible by such personal gallantry.
There were some surprises, one of which was the thrill of a male voice singing “God Bless America,” instead of the hyper-coloratura divas who plague our American civic life. But whoever picked the music for the inaugural ceremony itself—modern megachurch hymns, music that sounds like what they’d use for the quiet middle section of a Pixar animated film—was . . . lame. The downbeat orchestral arrangement that followed the president’s speech was no doubt an attempt to avoid charges that the ceremony had a triumphalist air. But I wound up thinking: This is America. We have a lot of good songs. And we watch inaugurals in part to hear them.
Never be defensive in your choice of music.
* * *
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.