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?

More wrong words; more milliseconds lost to confusion. "Every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth." "Matchless value" sounds like a late-night cable TV pitch (Plus we'll throw in a LintMasterII!). The president meant "immeasurable value," "infinite worth," something like that. "They bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth," said the president. An echo of the Nicene Creed, okay, but "They were created in the image of God" would have been even better. Hint: If you can quote the King James Bible, do.

The president said, "My most solemn duty is to protect this nation." But "my most solemn duty" only sounds as if it means something; on closer inspection it doesn't. He might have meant "My most important duty," or "my hardest duty," or something else. We can't tell.

Sometimes we find words or phrases that are just too weak for this president. No "human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies." Granted, but how can a president who has beaten the Taliban and Saddam speak of "bullies," as if they were vicious schoolboys? What ever happened to "bloody thuggish murderers," for example? Let a strong, clear-minded president use strong, clear words. "When freedom came under attack," said the president, "our response came like a single hand over a single heart." Why is it a "response" to a terrorist atrocity to put your hand on your heart? Affirming one's patriotism is always right, but our response went much farther than that. "When freedom came under attack, we struggled as one to rescue the victims and care for the wounded; we wept as one, mourned as one, then struck as one--not to wreak vengeance but to spread blessing." My sentence is neither brilliant nor memorable but is closer (I think) to what the president actually meant.

Sometimes the tone is wrong. "To serve your people you must learn to trust them." Sounds like a guidance counselor addressing the ninth grade.

"Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation" is a classic piece of unclear writing. Does a tradition become a "great liberating tradition" because it makes us feel free?--like sky-diving or running a marathon? Sure, I know what he means. In an inaugural address, that's not good enough. Likewise "we will make our society more prosperous and just and equal." Equal to what? To cut that kind of corner doesn't work on America's greatest occasion.

Another example; another split-second's wondering instead of listening: "One day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." The "fire of freedom" is good, but world suggests globe, and globes have no corners. I don't imagine that many listeners smacked their foreheads in befuddlement. (What? Globes don't have corners!) What actually happens is more like a fast-moving shadow that disappears almost before you notice it. A trivial point; a crumpled gum-wrapper. But enough crumpled gum-wrappers can ruin a beautiful lawn. If the president had said, "this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest caves on earth," he would also have hinted at bin Laden's ultimate destruction.

There was one flat-out unacceptable moment. Evidently the "edifice of character" is "sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount," and . . . "the words of the Koran"? Come off it! Which words? Name one! Is there a single sentence, phrase, idea in the Koran that has made any difference to this nation whatsoever? I'm not knocking the Koran; pluralism is wonderful. The problem is that at this moment, no listener in the whole world could possibly have believed that the president was serious.

To close with the Liberty Bell was brilliant--exactly right. The goal of the address was to ring-out crisp and clear and bright and bell-like; to proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof. And the president finished with one of the best phrases in the whole speech: "We are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom."

Let me conclude from a different angle. Good, clear writing is a dead-serious issue. A society that is unable to express itself clearly is endangering its very existence. But don't forget that Republicans have a lot on their minds nowadays--intellectual spring cleaning, a ton of old liberal myths to be dumped in the garbage, a fast-changing world to understand under new assumptions in new ways. Reactionaries have more time than radicals to polish their prose. Democrats have had plenty of time to work the bugs out of their speeches; they've been saying the same damned things, more or less, for 30 years. But I'd choose a George W. Bush pronouncement over an exquisitely polished reactionary-liberal utterance any day. I'm proud of the president's speech and what it says about him, about Progressive Conservatism, and about America.

Not such a bad performance after all.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.