The Magazine

Sometimes a Great Speech

From the January 31, 2005 issue: A close reading of the second Bush inaugural.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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GEORGE W. BUSH IS a strong, clear-minded president--one of the strongest and clearest-minded we have ever had. Why can't a great president give a great speech?

The president's second inaugural address was fine and generous, a big speech with sweeping views in all directions, a speech Americans can be proud of. But the language did not always rise to the level of the ideas. There were many good phrases, a few superb ones, and a brilliant ending. There were also weak phrases, a few unclear ones, and one absolute stinker. On the whole it was very good. It should have been better.

Granted: Poking holes is easy and fun. Turning blank pages into finished speeches for nagging critics to poke holes in is not so easy and no fun. Besides, any sane person will choose beautiful ideas over beautiful writing any day. But why can't this president have both? He deserves both.

But, before we begin, it's important to understand that loads of people work on big presidential speeches, some of them perfectly willing to override good prose in the interest of fine-tuning the political implications of every last syllable. The real writers, left alone, would unquestionably have produced better writing. In these comments I criticize the words, not the wordsmiths.

And one last caveat, in a way even more important. Inaugural addresses deserve to be pored over because they are monumentally important and will be reread for as long as the nation exists; possibly longer. But no other writers in the world have their prose so mercilessly dissected. Inaugural-address writing is not for the faint-hearted. A few years of fighter-pilot experience probably helps. (Ask the president.)

Let's begin with some good moves. The president and his writers have a gift for laying down a barrage of short, strong phrases that hit home with great force. The president was "determined to fulfill the oath that I have sworn and you have witnessed." Each short, energetic phrase makes the speech surge forward. I am determined to fulfill, I have sworn, you have witnessed; terrific. Or: "You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs." New power kicks in at regular intervals. It's a three-stage rocket of a sentence.

But there are too many wrong or weak or confusing words, and phrases that are not quite right, and sentences that are not absolutely clear. Each time you hear one you wonder "What?" for a split second; then you forget all about it as the speech moves forward. But those split-second pauses produce a scratchy, unpolished texture that listeners experience as a vague not-quite-rightness.

"We have seen our vulnerability--and we have seen its deepest source." The first "seen" refers to real seeing--we turned on our TVs and saw towers on fire. (A rhythm Blake would have liked.) The second "seen" is confusing. Was there a TV picture of a "deep source"? What does one look like? The president should have said, "We have seen our vulnerability--and understood its deepest source."

He was seduced by parallelism, which is usually a good thing. But not always. The president said, "No one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave." Nice parallelism: no one is fit paired with no one deserves. Notice how much weaker the first phrase sounds than "No man is fit to be a master"; it was cut out by feminist censors (now internalized and conveniently posted in our brains). But the real problem is the second phrase: No one "deserves to be a slave." If Saddam deserves to be executed, surely he deserves to be enslaved, which is a less-awful punishment. Slavery is unacceptable not because no criminal is vicious enough to deserve it, but because it demeans our own sense of God's justice. "As I would not be a slave," said Lincoln, "so I would not be a master." Hint: If you can quote Lincoln, do.

Other words are not quite right and parallelism has nothing to do with it. Violence "will cross the most defended borders," said the president; he should have said "the best defended borders." Only one force can "expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom." But the drive for freedom doesn't expose bad things, it defeats them. And why not "the barbarity of tyrants" instead of merely their "pretensions"? And why bestow a weak-tea phrase like "the decent and tolerant" (as if they were Miss Congeniality runners-up) on desperate peoples longing for liberty?