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Rhetoric More Liberal Than Most Democrats


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Well Disguised

by David Kusnet

21 January 2005

President Bush's second inaugural speech was magnificent rhetoric of the sort that White House wordsmiths love to write but presidents are usually reluctant to recite. Being eloquent is easiest when you're being emphatic, and this speech was chock-full of certitudes: Tyranny produces terrorism; Americans can only be secure when we have replaced dictatorships with democracies throughout the world; we must use our "considerable influence" to help overturn oppressive regimes; and (implicitly) those who doubt this believe that "dissidents prefer their chains." Any speechwriters worth their dog-eared memoirs by Theodore Sorensen and Peggy Noonan would want to write this speech, but no one could have done it better than Michael Gerson. Bearing witness to democracy's self-evident truths is the oldest and noblest strain in American oratory, but Gerson can make it sound fresh, as when Bush declared, "Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country."

A few observations: First, in his final venture as chief speechwriter, Gerson continued the task of building a new rhetoric of foreign policy to accompany Bush's approach to foreign affairs. In the speech's key passage, which the White House leaked to major newspapers, Bush said, "We are led by events and common sense to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." This statement is in some ways the mirror image of a memorable line from the very first inaugural address, in which George Washington declared that "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty" is "staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." Even until very recently, presidents described America's role in the world as merely defending democracies against attacks by fascism and communism, creating an environment where freedom could thrive on its own (as Woodrow Wilson put it, "making the world safe for democracy") or inspiring the world with our own example (Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill"). Actively intervening on behalf of democracy everywhere is something new in presidential rhetoric and American policy, as Bush implicitly admitted when he compared current challenges not only with the "sabbatical" of the years between 1989 and 2001 but also with the containment policy of the cold war. The potential pitfall, of course, is that as with idealistic rhetoric by past presidents, these statements can now be turned against Bush by his critics. For instance, how can the president who expressed his solidarity with democratic dissidents argue in favor of most-favored-nation trading status for China, where political prisoners are put to work and union organizers are put in jail? But we know that when it's time to defend trade with China, Bush will sound more like his father the realist and less like Michael Gerson the idealist.

Second, Gerson effectively and subtly linked domestic issues to the president's foreign policy vision: By beginning with his clarion call for democracy abroad, Bush built a rhetorical momentum that lent an aura of idealism to his domestic agenda, which he calls "the ownership society" but which mostly amounts to the partial privatization of Social Security. The transition between advancing democracy abroad and abolishing social insurance at home was accomplished by this sentence: "In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence."

Third, as he's done frequently during the past five years, Bush framed his conservative domestic programs and interventionist international policies with rhetoric more liberal than most Democrats now dare to use. He placed his policies in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act, Harry Truman's G.I. Bill of Rights, and, yes, Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security Act--the very program he wants to partially privatize. Those who doubt his foreign policy, he implied, must believe that "women welcome humiliation and servitude." He repeated the slogan of the civil rights era, "Freedom now." And, recalling Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, which gave Americans something to fight for during World War II, Bush promised to "give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear."

Finally, there was Gerson's by-now famous use of religious phrases. But while many have credited Gerson with embedding religious references in Bush's speeches, the president's rhetoric yesterday also spoke to America's civil religion. Bush's critics can and should challenge how he'll translate his poetry into policy. But meanwhile, they ought to mimic, not mock, his invocations of democratic values. In public debate, those who speak movingly about democracy have seized the high ground. Bush tried to do that yesterday; his critics should try to do that in the days ahead.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.


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