Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2005 / 14 Shevat 5765
Notes on an inaugural: What after the words?
Words can be action. Winston Churchill, it was said, mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Just as the first Elizabeth, that queen with the stomach of a king had done in the time of the Spanish armada.
Franklin Roosevelt's voice stirred a nation out of not just an economic but a spiritual depression. ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.")
And Lincoln . . . . If his Gettysburg Address was a new founding, his miraculous Second Inaugural, delivered to a nation still broken and grieving, was more revelation than statecraft, as if it had been engraved on stone tablets. ("With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . .")
And then there are the other inaugural addresses, a shelf full of them, many mercifully covered in dust, their corpus buried out of simple respect for the dead words, some stillborn. The cause of death? Their prolix politics. The most common symptom of their inadequacy? An absorption with self and other minutiae. Let us not disturb their remains but pass respectfully by.
And how will this president's Second Inaugural be seen someday? Much depends on how he shapes that someday.
Free nations should not make the mistake of relying only on words. Mr. Lincoln didn't.
George W. Bush had the honor - and burden - of being sworn in as president of the United States Thursday not because of any words of his. No one would ever mistake him for a man of natural eloquence. His eloquence lies elsewhere. In the clench of his jaw, in his willingness to act and not just talk about acting.
Without the benefit of any empirical evidence whatsoever, but just on the basis of instinct and intuition, I daresay he's president today because a lot of Americans, including a lot of Americans who might disagree with his decisions, and who have serious doubts about how successful his presidency will be, trust the man - and the wartime president. In large part because he knows he is a wartime president.
George W. Bush has not treated these murky battles in Afghanistan and Iraq and around the world as some sideshow or distraction from the Real Issues, but as part of the great struggle of our time. A struggle that will determine the kind of world we will leave to our children and children's children. A struggle we will not be able to talk our way out of, but must fight - and win.
This president may or may not have the right strategy for this war, but he knows he's in one - not a criminal proceeding, not a police action, not a meeting of the U.N. Security Council but a war. And in war, as an American general once pointed out, there is no substitute for victory. And victory will require more than words.
What a difference between the first and second inaugurals of this president. And not just because of the difference in the popular vote. But because of September 11, 2001. If it did not change everything, it changed George W. Bush.
This country, as a wise president (John Quincy Adams) once pointed out, "does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion only of her own."
We have heard those words of wisdom regularly quoted in this great debate over the nature of the struggle in which the world is now engaged. They're used to rebuke neo-conservatives, by neo-isolationists. (Or would it be better to refer to them as multilateral isolationists?)
The question those words evade is: What should be America's response when the monster goes abroad in search of us ?
As it did on September 11, 2001.
Though we scarcely realized it at the time, we were being hunted long before September 11th. That was just the date, and event, that made the challenge no longer ignorable. This president has responded to it - and not just with words. That is what changed him, and us.
To quote the nation's first Republican president, who would have been its last had he listened to his critics and responded to the crisis of his time only with words: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . . As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
When his critics call this president a radical, it does not strike some of us as criticism.
In this struggle, the American voters played their part November 2. Whatever the wisdom of their decision, it was one that reflected the national will and a determination to sustain it.
The decisive front in this contest, not for the first time, will be the home front. That is where the national will is shaped and sustained - or not.
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