Wednesday, January 26, 2005

'And then there came a day of fire'

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

What a difference four years makes?

Maybe. President Bush certainly seemed more relaxed as he took office this time around. Gone were the darting eyes, clenched jaw and nervousness. He was confident, even commanding. After a brisk wave to the crowd—his crowd—he seemed to sit back and drink in the whole pageant. He had, of course, changed physically. His hair was grayer, his face fuller and etched with new lines and wrinkles.

But there was more than the difference four years in the White House and one re-election can make in a president. Hanging over Bush's second inauguration and infusing the tone and content of his second inaugural was the difference a day makes.

That day—Sept. 11, 2001—inevitably gave this inauguration a special aura. It made for what Bush, early in his address, called our "consequential times." It gave Thursday's prayers and hymns--"Bless this House" and "Heal our Land"—more meaning.

The United States is born again each inauguration day, but we are an older, less innocent land after 9/11. There was somberness amid the sunshine, an icy resoluteness in the celebration, and a deeper appreciation of life's fragility—our vulnerability—than four years ago. You might have seen it in the person of the ailing Chief Justice Rehnquist. Or felt it in the worry that we wouldn't get through another big national event without incident.

"After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical," Bush said. "And then there came a day of fire."

It echoed a line in President Lincoln's second inaugural address ("And the war came") and offered a hinge for Bush's grand theme: "We have seen our vulnerability, and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny, prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power and cross the most defended borders and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment ... and that is the force of human freedom."

Bush wants it to be our business to spread freedom abroad ("Today America speaks anew to the peoples of the world ... When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you.") and he wasn't done with the fire metaphor: "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."

We won't impose our own style of democracy on other lands, and the mission "is not primarily the task of arms." Not that our influence is unlimited. "(B)ut fortunately for the oppressed, said Bush, "America's influence is considerable and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."

This won't please those here and abroad who view our influence as negative and even noxious. What I found troubling, however, was the sweep of Bush's rhetoric. It was a little too over-stated and Wilsonian, utopian even, for my constrained taste, though it was clearly in line with his post-9/11 foreign-policy pronouncements.

So were some of his other themes. Indeed, some echoed his first inaugural speech. He tied together the speech's foreign and domestic sections through his ownership society. This will promote greater freedom here at home, too, through expanded ownership of homes, businesses and retirement savings (Social Security reform): "By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear ..."

Yet the most moving section of the address came when he spoke to young people about idealism and sacrifice. "I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes," he said. "You have seen duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers. You have seen that life is fragile and evil is real and courage triumphs. 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."

In Thursday's chill sunshine, George W. Bush was speaking to a post-9/11 generation—a generation that, maybe more than many others, will require plenty of fire and ice.

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