I have been called old, jaded, a sourpuss. Far worse, I have been called French. A response is in order.
You know the dispute. Last week I slammed the president’s inaugural address. I was not alone, but I came down hard, early and in one of the most highly read editorial pages in America. Bill Buckley and David Frum also had critical reactions. Bill Safire on the other hand called it one of the best second inaugurals ever, and commentators from right and left (Bill Kristol, E.J. Dionne) found much to praise and ponder. (To my mind the best response to the inaugural was the grave, passionate essay of Mark Helprin.) So herewith some questions and answers:
A week later, do I stand by my views?
Yes. If I wrote it today I wouldn’t be softer, but harder.
Am I heartened by White House clarifications that the speech did not intend to announce the unveiling of a new policy?
Yes. My reaction is the exact opposite of Bill Bennett’s and E.J. Dionne’s, who were both disappointed. I am relieved.
Why don’t I see the speech as so many others do, as a thematic and romantic statement of what we all hope for, world freedom? Don’t we all want that?
Yes. But words have meaning. To declare that it is now the policy of the United States to eradicate tyranny in the world, that we are embarking on the greatest crusade in the history of freedom, and that the survival of American liberty is dependent on the liberty of every other nation—seemed to me, and seems to me, rhetorical and emotional overreach of the most embarrassing sort.
What’s wrong with a little overweening ambition? Shouldn’t man’s reach exceed his grasp?
True. But history is quite big enough right now. We’ve already been given a lot to grasp. The president will have real juice for the next 2 1/2 years. If in the next 30 months he can stabilize and fortify Iraq, helping it to become a functioning democratic entity that doesn’t encourage terrorism; further gird and undergird Afghanistan; keep the U.S. safe from attack; make our alliances closer; make permanent his tax cuts; and break through on Social Security, that will be huge. It will be historic. It will yield a presidency that even its severest critics will have to admit was enormously consequential, and its supporters will rightly claim as leaving a lasting legacy of courage and inspiration. We don’t need more than that—it’s quite enough. And it will be quite astonishing. Beyond that, don’t overreach. Refrain from breast beating, and don’t clobber the world over the head with your moral fabulousness.
What was the biggest mistake of the speech?
They forgot context. All speeches take place within a historical context, a time and place. A good speech acknowledges context often without even mentioning it.
For a half century our country faced a terrible foe. Some feared conflagration. Many of us who did not were convinced it would not happen because the United States was not evil, and the Soviet Union was not crazy. The Soviets didn’t want war to achieve their ends, they wanted to achieve those ends without the expense and gamble of war. We rolled them back, bankrupted them, forced their collapse. And we did it in part through a change of policy in which Ronald Reagan declared: From here on in we tell the truth. He called the Soviet Union an evil empire because it was a) evil and b) an empire, and c) he judged a new and stark candor the way to begin progress. We’d already kissed Brezhnev; it didn’t work. And it wasn’t Reagan’s way in any case.
Today is quite different. The context is different. Now we are up against not an organized state monolith but dozens, hundreds and thousands of state and nonstate actors—nuts with nukes, freelance bioterrorists, Islamofascists, independent but allied terror groups. The temperature of our world is very high. We face trouble that is already here. We don’t have to summon more.
Healthy alliances are a coolant in this world. What this era demands is steely resolve, and actions that remove those who want things at a full boil. In this world we must speak, yes, but softly, and carry many sticks, using them, when we must, terribly and swiftly. We must gather around us as many friends, allies and well-wishers as possible. And we must do nothing that provides our foes with ammunition with which they can accuse us of conceit, immaturity or impetuousness.
Here is an unhappy fact: Certain authoritarians and tyrants whose leadership is illegitimate and unjust have functioned in history as—ugly imagery coming—garbage-can lids on their societies. They keep freedom from entering, it is true. But when they are removed, the garbage—the freelance terrorists, the grievance merchants, the ethnic nationalists—pops out all over. Yes, freedom is good and to be strived for. But cleaning up the garbage is not pretty. And it sometimes leaves the neighborhood in an even bigger mess than it had been.
Am I saying we shouldn’t support freedom then?
Hardly. But we should remember as we do it that history, while full of opportunity, is also a long tale of woe. And human vanity—not only that of others, but our own—only complicates our endeavors. Thomas Jefferson was a genius, a great man who loved liberty. But that love led him to headlong support of a French Revolution that proved more demonic than liberating. He was right to encourage the fire of liberty but wrong to lend his great name to Robespierre, Marat and the rest. So much of life is case-by-case, so many of our decisions must be discrete and particular and not “thematic.” It is hard to do the right thing. That is why grown-ups often get headaches and children mostly don’t.
Life is layered, complex, not always most needful of political action. For many people in the world the most important extrafamilial relationship is not with the state but with the God. Pope John Paul II helped free his beloved Poland from the Soviet yoke. But when he looked at Poland some years after its freedom was won, he wondered if many of his kinsman had not chosen a kind of existential enslavement to Western materialism. He wondered if his people were not in some ways less free. It wasn’t a stupid question. It was at the heart of life.
But isn’t hard criticism of such an important speech at such a serious moment disloyal? You’re a Bush supporter!
I am. I even took off from the Journal to work for his re-election. I did exciting and I hope helpful work at considerable financial loss. But loyalty consists of many things, including being truthful with our friends. As Reagan used to say, candor is a compliment. This White House can take it. Two years ago, after watching a series of rather too jocular and arguably too boastful news conferences from administration leaders on the coming war, I said that they seemed to be suffering from mission inebriation. I meant it. And meant it as a caution. The White House can be a hothouse. Emotions run high, tired minds run on adrenal fumes. When I said last week that they seemed again to be suffering from mission inebriation, I meant that too.
As for criticizing Mr. Bush on something so big, that’s why I did it: It’s big. And so important. When you really disagree, you have to say so. In the end I found the president’s thinking perplexing and disturbing. At any rate, in the end, as Jack Kennedy once said, “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.”
What do you think of David Frum’s wondering if the fact that the system let this speech through doesn’t suggest the system needs work?
I had a similar thought. I wonder if this White House, with its understandable but not always helpful Band of Brothers aspect, isn’t different from previous White Houses in this. In other White Houses there were always too many people eager to show their worth by removing the meaning of the speech, or warning the president that such and such shouldn’t be said. I get the impression no one in this White House wants to be the person in the speechwriter’s memoir who tried to remove “Tear down this wall” or “evil empire.” So often such people are defensive, anxious, unhelpful. They often lost the battle in the Reagan White House, to the benefit of history. But for this speech there seemed no one who wanted to think defensively and wield the editing stick. Which is bad, because such people are actually needed. They’re like dead wood in a forest; they add to the ecology; they have their purpose.
Bill Buckley and David Gelertner suggest the speech was badly written. Isn’t that really the essential problem?
No. It was badly thought. In any case most inaugural addresses are rather badly written, and I would know. We haven’t had a truly great one since 1961, 44 years ago. In this case the document seems to me to bear hard the personal mark of the president, and not of writers. But it is not the plain-talking Bush we know so well. It is Bush trying to be fancy. It is a tough man who speaks the language of business, sports and politics trying to be high-toned and elegant.
You’re being patronizing.
That’s what jaded old French people are for.
We all have our different styles. The biggest style mistake you can make is to use someone else’s style, or the moment’s style if you will, and not your own.
Speaking of style, how did you like the headline on your piece last week?
I thought it was quite wicked and didn’t capture the meaning of the piece. When I pointed this out to the editor he promised in the future to be more nuanced. But it was my fault. Advice to self: don’t go to cover a story before you’ve OK’d the headline on the previous one.
What are you looking forward to now?
I am hoping for a State of the Union address that is tough, clear, tethered, and in which the speaker takes his program seriously but himself rather more lightly. I am hoping the headline will be, “Return to Planet Earth.”
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Two departures this week deserve note. A respectful and affectionate goodbye-from-columnating to Bill Safire of the New York Times, a great presence on that op-ed page for 30 years. He was a gutsy, witty wader into the fray. He has taken shots at me in the past, and in the spirit of comradely columnary aggression I wish I could take a goodbye shot back. (If he were sitting next to me now he’d say, “Don’t be soft, I’m on top, start a pile-on!”) But I can’t. A classy and provocative pro from beginning to end. I’m going to miss his column a lot.
Johnny Carson’s gift was that he seemed startled by sophistication. This was so American. It’s why Americans loved him. When the starlet blurted the seamy detail, when someone said or did something too odd or too open to interpretation, Carson would give the audience the dry look. And east or west, north or south, we all got the joke. When we laughed together, in our separate houses, that was a kind of community. It was a good note on which to end the day. He was an American treasure. Rest in peace.