George Bush’s second inaugural address set me to ruminating on the question of political rhetoric. Indeed, there was so much to chew on, I’ve been processing for nearly a week and I’m still not quite ready to swallow it.
Like religious speech, political speech is infinitely elastic. Like religious speech, it traffics both in exalted ideas and equally potent wicked ones. Here too, Shakespeare’s assertion obtains, that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” — that our foundational texts are vast reservoirs of meaning that can be cut and pasted to construct persuasive arguments for almost any position.
In our secular society, “freedom” and “liberty” are holy words. When I hear them or read them, I have a strong physical reaction: I become aware of my heart as it lifts in my chest; I feel myself taking in a full breath; and I sense (more than see) a panorama of liberation, flashes of freed slaves and suffragists, the blur of a globe spinning in space, wrapped in the fabric of our collective yearning for the beloved community, the freedom we were made to bring about.
I did not watch or hear the inaugural address. I have no knowledge of the president’s inflections as he recited it, no image of his gestures and expressions. Instead, I read the transcript in the next morning’s paper, flat black on white. Bush’s brief address used the word “free” or “freedom” more than 25 times, and I counted 15 mentions of “liberty” (as well as one throwaway reference to “human rights” and none at all to “equality”). When I read the following passages, I was almost overwhelmed by the desire to see them come true: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country….America has need of idealism and courage, because we have essential work at home, the unfinished work of American freedom. In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty.”
Unfortunately, it was impossible to avoid reading between the lines, which was a definite buzzkill. There, the president told us that he will do his best to privatize Social Security and dismantle other social programs in the interests of bringing about an “ownership society,” to eliminate women’s right to reproductive choice, and to send soldiers to “die, wave upon wave” in his campaign to remake the world in his image.
That people interpret the same speech in very different ways is not news. My favorite text on this subject, which uses the example of a group of aphasiacs watching Ronald Reagan deliver an address on TV, appeared in the New York Review of Books 20 years ago (proving I haven’t lost my memory yet, I’m thrilled to report). Click on this link and you can read Oliver Sacks’ wonderful essay “The President’s Speech” online.
Even for those of us without significant neurological deficits, a speech doesn’t stand alone; whatever we know about the speaker colors each word. Orlando Patterson did a great job of explaining this in his Saturday \New York Times\ op-ed, “The Speech Misheard Round The World.”
It’s therefore unsurprising that the world press understood Bush’s address in so many different ways. Saturday’s New York Times had an interesting round-up of reactions from the European press. Here’s my favorite, from Rome’s La Repubblica, describing a president who is “at peace with himself, is satisfied with himself and thus is even more disturbing….There is the sense of a man who now considers the entire world as his own parish.” I must be having flashbacks, because this, too, reminds me of the Reagan era, when French cultural minister Jack Lang characterized U.S. policy in these terms: “Yes to liberty, but which liberty? The liberty…of the fox in the henhouse which can devour the defenseless chickens at his pleasure?”
I suspect I’m not the only one flashing back these days (to Iran-Contra or other foreign adventures?), because the papers this weekend featured quotes from Pat Buchanan, charging that Bush “has asserted a right to intervene in the internal affairs of every nation on earth, and that is, quite simply, a recipe for endless war. And war is the death of republics.” The replies to such comments featured extensive spin-doctoring, as from an unnamed “senior administration official” to the effect that “Mr. Bush’s speech did not suggest that there would be any military intervention.”
The day after the inauguration, the New York Times published poll results showing that Bush’s approval rating, at 49%, was markedly lower than those of Reagan and Clinton at the start of their second terms. Fifty-six percent of those polled think things are worse in the US, that they’ve “gotten off seriously on the wrong track.” Seventy-five percent still think there will be “a significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq” by the end of Bush’s second term. Forty-nine percent think we should have stayed out of Iraq. Fifty-nine percent think that before getting us into Iraq, Bush administration officials either hid elements of what they knew or outright lied.
The yearning for exaltation and communion appears to be hard-wired into us. As Americans, we share a powerful desire to hear the uplifting words of our secular faith, to feel freedom swelling our hearts and lungs. I find myself wondering how many people voted for Bush because they were persuaded by his evident comfort with this desire, thus mistaking words of freedom for the thing itself. Back in June, I posted a link to a brief video clip that shows a very different President Bush delivering the type of speech I am truly yearning to hear. Even if you saw it in June, Jen Simmons’ video definitely repays a second look, in the currency of a soaring heart.