Michael Barone: Why Bush Will Sound Like Wilson

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Barone, in the WSJ (1-19-05):

Tomorrow George W. Bush will deliver his Second Inaugural speech, the 16th Second Inaugural delivered by an American president over the last 212 years. It will be the first time that one president has delivered a second inaugural just eight years after another since William McKinley in 1901. It can safely be predicted that Mr. Bush will not deliver the shortest Second Inaugural -- George Washington's was only 135 words -- nor the longest -- James Monroe in 1821 went on for what must have been an hour. And we can be certain that he will not deliver the most sublime. Abraham Lincoln did that in 1865 in his Second Inaugural, surely the greatest speech ever delivered by an American president.

A second inaugural comes at the hinge point of what each of these presidents expected to be an eight-year administration. It is an opportunity to look back at the last four years and to look ahead to the next.

Our early 19th century presidents tended to look backward, to give an accounting of their service. Invariably it was favorable. Thomas Jefferson in 1805: "On taking this station on a former occasion I declared the principles on which I believed it my duty to administer the affairs of our Commonwealth. My conscience tells me I have on every occasion acted up to that declaration according to its obvious import and to the understanding of every candid mind." Andrew Jackson in 1833: "The foreign policy adopted by our government soon after the formation of our present Constitution, and very generally pursued by successive administrations, has been crowned with almost complete success." Mr. Bush is not likely to confess to a syllabus of errors as his liberal critics would like. But he surely will not sound this smug.

Second Inaugurals also can try to place where Americans stand in history. The Founders lived in a world where republics were scarce and knew they had embarked on an experiment. Monroe gave a discourse on ancient republics. Jackson, a general turned president, warned of "military leaders at the head of their victorious legions becoming our lawgivers and judges."

Ulysses Grant took a more optimistic view. "The civilized world is tending toward republicanism," he said in 1873, three years after France ousted its last monarch and established its Third Republic. "I do believe that our Great Maker is preparing the world, in His own good time, to become one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will no longer be required."

The vision Mr. Bush is likely to present seems more in line with Woodrow Wilson's. Speaking in March 1917, as World War I raged, and one month before the United States entered the conflict, Wilson said, "The tragic events of the 30 months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back." He set forth his goals -- a world in which all nations were "equally interested in the peace of the world and the stability of free peoples, and equally responsible for their maintenance" -- a clear preview of his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations. There is something in common here with Mr. Bush's vision of an America spreading freedom and democracy to new corners of the world.

Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower after a decade of Cold War insisted, "Our world is where our destiny lies -- with men, of all people, and all nations, who are or would be free." Richard Nixon, after ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam, sounded a note of retreat. "The time has passed when America will make every other nation's conflict our own. . . . Let us build a structure of peace in the world in which the weak are as safe as the strong -- in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system."

Twelve years later Ronald Reagan echoed Eisenhower's denunciation of Communism and sounded a more optimistic note. "Human freedom is on the march." The Cold War over, Bill Clinton in 1997 promised safety against remaining threats. "We will maintain . . . a strong defense against terror and destruction. Our children will sleep free from the threat of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons." Expect to hear more on this from Mr. Bush....

What not to expect? Querulous complaints about the people or the press. Grover Cleveland, who loved to veto appropriations, decried "certain conditions and tendencies among our people which seem to menace the integrity and usefulness of their Government. . . . The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned." Thomas Jefferson noted, "During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare." He went on in this vein for three paragraphs. Ulysses Grant ended his Second Inaugural thus, "I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication." Mr. Bush had his fun with the New York Times in his acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden and probably won't raise the issue again.

George W. Bush has been criticized for his religious references. But he has only been following tradition. Every Second Inaugural since Washington's brief statement has included some reference to God, from Jefferson's "that Being," Madison's "Heaven" and Monroe's "Supreme Author of All Good" to Reagan's "God bless you" and Clinton's "May God strengthen our hands for the good work ahead -- and always, always bless our America." Four years ago Mr. Bush referred, in Founder's language, to the "author" of "our nation's grand story." Expect something similar from him tomorrow.

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