It was called the most philosophical inaugural address ever, and I thought it was Bush’s best ever, until he at least equaled, and might have topped it with his State of the Union speech. One would be hard pressed to find more comprehensive pronouncements of natural right conservatism (some might add neo-) this side of Leo Strauss, and it was blended with his own particular style of Christian political philosophy. Peggy Noonan, surprisingly, said the inaugural contained “too much God”, Joseph Bottum said it had “just the right amount of God”. Whatever your preference, and I lean more toward Bottum, there was plenty of Lincoln and a whole lot of Bush’s favorite new friend and author, Natan Sharansky (whose book, The Case for Democracy, I am now reading and highly recommend). And no one can say that they were not bold, visionary messages from a President who will not be satisfied with anything less than changing the course of world history. These are big ideas—“ending tyranny in our world”, “no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave”, “self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self”, “when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you”, and “there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty”—and no bigger ideas have guided an administration since the days of Lincoln. Over-reaching in some respects? Possibly, and as Noonan suggests, some of Bush’s objectives are not possible in this world, only in the next, but we live in a world in need of more, not less, bold vision of the type that is restorative of our founding ideals and less, not more, of the “laundry list” of government commitments of favors to the special pleaders on the right and left.
There is in the insular world of American political life an extreme bias against initiatives that are not absolutely politically necessary as a last resort to respond to a crisis, and there is a void in incentives for strategic thinking that is firmly embedded in D.C. culture. In these two speeches, Bush has confronted these biases with rare choices—conviction over calculation, transformation over transaction, event-making over event-managing, and risk-taking over legacy-building.