Fine Words

Fine Words

Fine Words

Politics and policy.
Jan. 20 2001 3:35 PM

Fine Words

At the heart of today's transfer of power is a paradox of communication. Bill Clinton, the most fluent of presidents, seldom approached eloquence in his speeches. But his successor, whose spontaneous inarticulacy is legendary, is more than capable of it in formal settings.

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George W. Bush first demonstrated this in his fine speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. He did it even more impressively today in the icy drizzle on the steps of the Capitol. Judged as a piece of oratory, his inaugural address was the best since Reagan's first in 1980, and perhaps since John F. Kennedy's "ask not" message of 1961. It was crisp and in places quite moving. The key terms--"civility," "compassion," "responsibility," and "character"--were familiar from the Bush campaign. But the language he used to develop these notions was strong and fresh.

Much of the credit for the success goes to Bush's terrific speechwriter, Mike Gerson. But eloquence requires far more than a well-wrought script. The gifted writer Peggy Noonan never succeeded in making George H.W. Bush speak memorably. Flights of Noonanesque language that Ronald Reagan launched effortlessly crashed to earth after falling out of the elder Bush's mouth. Bush's inaugural address in 1989 was a rhetorical wreck on the highway, a 40-car pile-up of speeding metaphors. His new breeze blew open doors shrouded in the fog of confusion, as new ground was broken "in a room called tomorrow." Clinton, perhaps wisely, seldom attempted this sort of lyricism. 

But George W. Bush, more spiritual than his father, less literal than his predecessor, can carry off a good writer's fine words. He had me from the beginning of his address today, when he framed his speech around the American "story" in which we all participate. What happens in this story, Bush said, is that "flawed and fallible people," once part of a slave-holding society, come closer to living up to the ideals that unite them. He described American democracy as "a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations." In the rest of the speech, he talked about helping the poor and disadvantaged and made it sound less like noblesse oblige than the shared national duty of citizens. "I can pledge our nation to a goal," he said, offering a reference to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side."

My only complaint about this kind of rhetoric is that noble aspirations about "service" don't go very far toward providing a clear concept of government's responsibilities. Reagan's first inaugural address famously contended that government had assumed too great a role in addressing social problems. He said we needed to get government off our back. Clinton's first inaugural address proposed a different idea of government's role, arguing that it should be based more on reciprocity. These were fairly clear visions. George W. Bush, I think, returns to his father's less coherent view of government. Bush the Elder fudged the question of the federal government's proper role, calling on the voluntarism of  "a thousand points of light" in part because Washington had "more will than wallet."

You can't use that excuse in an age of trillion-dollar surpluses. But the new president still hasn't said whether government is doing too much, not enough, or the right amount. "Government has great responsibilities, for public safety and public health, for civil rights and common schools. Yet compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government," he said. It sounds as if he wants to increase the role of private charity in addressing social problems but without necessarily reducing the role of Washington. Bush is calling on both public and private sector responses to social ills without doing much to delineate what each should leave to the other.

At a more specific level, Bush's speech laid out an agenda that is impressive in its clarity and simplicity. The president named five things he intends to accomplish. He wants to "reclaim America's schools," "reform Social Security and Medicare," "reduce taxes," "build our defenses beyond challenge," and "confront weapons of mass destruction." You can disagree with these priorities, but you can't fault Bush for not spelling them out clearly enough. Four years from now, it will be possible to judge him on how well he has met these goals.

The biggest weakness in speech was that Bush alluded only in a vague way to the fact that he received fewer votes for president than one of the people sitting behind him on the platform. I was hoping he would take a cue from John Quincy Adams, the other son-of president, whose biography Bush has allegedly been reading. Like Bush, Adams won the Electoral College in 1824 despite the fact that his opponent, Andrew Jackson, received more popular votes. In his inaugural address, Adams did not shy away from discussing the democratic anomaly. "My Fellow citizens, you are acquainted with the peculiar circumstances of the recent election, which have resulted in affording me the opportunity of addressing you at this time, " Adams said. "... Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence."

The closest Bush came to this sort of appeal to people who voted against him was thanking Al Gore "for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace." Perhaps Bush thought that owning up to his imperfect mandate would make him weaker in office. I'd argue to the contrary. Acknowledging the reality of how you got where you are is the beginning of genuine political strength.