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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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.