Most people have forgotten, but four years ago George W. Bush delivered one of the best-received inaugural addresses in a half-century. In Slate, Jacob Weisberg judged Bush's first inaugural "the best since Reagan's firstin 1980, and perhaps since John F. Kennedy's'ask not' message of 1961." The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg went further, calling the speech "better than all but a tiny handful of all the inaugurals of all the presidents since the republic was founded." As President Bush prepares to deliver his second, you'd think he would have acquired by now a reputation as a first-rate orator.
Of course, he hasn't. Perhaps because he's so inarticulate off-the-cuff, Bush manages to stun the commentariat—and, I expect, a lot of the general public—with his speech-giving talent. But over the course of his presidency, Bush has disappointed only twice when he has been asked to give a major address: the 2004 State of the Union, which even conservatives thought was awful, and his weak address to the nation on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush surprised me Wednesday night with his remarks at the bitterly cold "Celebration of Freedom" held at the Ellipse on the National Mall. Not with his great sense of timing—something Bill Clinton never had—though Bush drew laughs when he said of Dick Cheney, "Our nation has never had a finer Vice President," and then paused before adding, "Sorry, Dad." Or with the fact that both he and Vice President Cheney uttered the words, "Ryan Seacrest." (President Bush added, "Thanks, Ryan," showing the youth of America that he's on a first-name basis with the American Idol host, who emceed the event.) What was most striking was the conciliatory tone Bush adopted, one that was at odds with his first inaugural, when he made no mention—other than to thank Al Gore "for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace"—of the controversial nature of his election.
This was a new, more confident Bush than the one who four years ago was afraid to mention how many people did not like him. On Wednesday night, the president talked of inaugurations as "a time of unity for our country." He reached out to those who voted against him: "And I know that this office carries a duty to the entire nation. After all, we are one America, and every day that I am your President, I will serve all Americans." Bush pledged not to divulge too much about his inaugural address ("You'll be pleased to hear I'm not going to deliver it twice."), but he suggested the theme would be (perhaps unsurprisingly) freedom's relationship to peace. He ended, with typical understated eloquence, "I will speak about freedom. This is the cause that unites our country and gives hope to the world and will lead us to a future of peace. We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom, and America will always be faithful to that cause."
As his did this summer in New York, Bush will outline in his second inaugural a confident and inspiring vision of America's role in the world, one that a majority of Americans find deeply attractive. This president has always been better, despite his reputation, at talking than he is at doing. And he's always found it easier to talk about unity than to unify.
Bush's short speech Wednesday night was a reminder: After he takes the oath of office, he will sound good. He always does. But after four years, it should take more than sounding good for him to pleasantly surprise us.