Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2005 / 22 Shevat 5765
The globalization of American rhetoric
You can tell how effective a speech is by who responds to it and how. It was predictable enough that the usual left-right divisions would emerge in reaction to the president's words. But this time there were a couple of surprises. Two knowledgeable critics on the right with some speechwriting credentials of their own, Mark Helprin and Peggy Noonan, gave it a thumbs-down.
Mark Helprin is a kind of romantic realist, which may explain his affinity with dour-hilarious Bob Dole. He took issue with the whole, airy, worldwide Wilsonian vision of this president's call for freedom. After all, look what happened to Woodrow Wilson in his second term. Between disillusionment at home and power politics abroad, that president's dreams were shattered, and the country recoiled from idealism for decades. Hubris has a way of coming a-cropper.
The big problem with this speech wasn't the president's ideals, which are rooted in America's, but how he presented them vaguely. The signature phrases, designed to be quoted in the next day's papers, rose and fell like a series of waves and wavelets, then dribbled away. There was nothing distinctive about them; call it the globalization of American rhetoric.
In her critique of the president's speech in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan blamed the problem on G-d. "Way too Much G-d," said the headline over her analysis. Or at least G-dtalk.
But it wasn't the emphasis on Providence that was the problem. Lincoln's Second Inaugural, surely the greatest of American inaugural addresses, is almost solely a conversation with G-d, or about His ways. It could have been carved out of the Old Testament.
There were some fine phrases scattered throughout George W. Bush's second inaugural, and each was a small crystallization of a great idea:
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. . . . America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. . . . The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. . . . 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. . . ."
But as soon as they were spoken, the phrases subsided into pedestrian calculation. The seams of the speech showed. Hubris supplanted humility, and metaphors were stretched beyond their breaking point. ("By our efforts we have lit a fire . . . a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.") Is this the march of liberty, or a forest fire?
There was something out of sync about the prose a disconnect between the daily bombings and the sweeping abstractions. It brought to mind Lyndon Johnson talking about peace and brotherhood while Vietnam raged and the cities burned.
If this president's prose were more measured, it would be more powerful. Instead of ignoring doubts, he would have done better to address them, and so raise realistic hopes. In short, too much sweep, not enough proportion. And not enough of a decent distance between man's ways and G-d's. There was a tendency to be too familiar with Providence. And we all know what familiarity breeds.
The biggest problem with the speech was the lack of a single, consistent narrative into which to fit all the dynamic phrases. In the end, the president inspired cheers, not thought and certainly not awe. His second inaugural became a series of applause lines rather than a cogent story. Reading it, you might want to underline sentence after sentence. But a week later, who would remember any of them?
In contrast, Lincoln's Second Inaugural unfolds in an air of mystery and reverence, acceptance and repentance, and it is filled with the knowledge that His ways are not our ways. ("The Almighty has His own purposes.") The truth that makes us free is not always light and airy.
This inaugural was too close to a campaign speech. You almost expected to see balloons arise at the end. It satisfied those who already believed, but did it sway anyone who didn't? It exemplified the level and tone of this era's public discourse. It did not raise it. It stated this president's convictions boldly and repeatedly, but, as Learned Hand tried to tell us, the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right.
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