The presidential inauguration, no matter who is being sworn in, is a glorious moment, showing the world how freely elected governments work. But to my mind, the second inaugural address of George W. Bush was not only beautifully written and delivered, but also historic and memorable, for two major reasons.
First, the president’s address focused on liberty and what it means to the world. This was the most idealistic and moralistic presidential message since Franklin Roosevelt summoned us to the heroic task of saving the world from tyranny in World War II.
As President Bush was speaking, I could hear in his words echoes of Luke 4:18: “Proclaim liberty to the captives.” And he talked about freeing the slaves of oppression. As the president has consistently made clear, freedom is God’s gift to mankind. It cannot be given nor taken away by governments. This was precisely the point made by John Kennedy in 1960 and the point made by the writers of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Building on that theme, Bush correctly and eloquently said that there is no justice without freedom, no human rights without liberty.
The speech was not only idealistic, it was also pragmatic. What Bush recognizes is that every attempt to paper over differences in the Middle East for the last fifty years has failed. The differences run too deep. So how do we help to solve the region’s problems? We introduce its oppressed peoples to democracy and freedom. This is why our troops are in harm’s way in Iraq — because if liberty and democracy come to that country, imperfect and dangerous though the process may be, Iraq can swing the balance of power in the Middle East. The potential for real peace is there. This is why we must fervently pray for the administration’s success.
Second, the address marked an extraordinary moment for the conservative movement. One White House insider told me this week that, in his opinion, Bush is seizing the mantle of idealism from contemporary liberalism. In the twentieth century, the idea of spreading human liberty and defending human dignity was the cause of liberals, especially under Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. Conservatism was primarily a reactionary political movement, unwilling to engage in bold, idealistic causes.
There has now been a complete role reversal. It is the conservatives who, led by President Bush, are summoning us to greatness: to spread liberty, to free the slaves, to defend human dignity. As my White House friend said, “This president is intent on shaping history, not impeding it.” It’s the liberals who are reacting, unwilling to defend liberty.
With this inspiring speech, President Bush has set America firmly on the course of pursuing liberty and justice throughout the world. I hope that all Americans, regardless of political party, are ready to respond to the president’s call to defend God’s gift of liberty for the oppressed. As he phrased it, “Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself — and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.”