LIBERTY BULL. Bush did two things in his 21-minute inaugural address that were noteworthy. First, he linked the war in Iraq - and possibly wars to come, since he never actually used the word "Iraq" - to an American mission of spreading liberty across the world. Second, he wrapped up his domestic agenda in that quest for liberty, casting proposals such as the privatization of Social Security in the gauzy haze of freedom.
It was a skillful performance, but that was to be expected. Anyone who still thinks that Bush is going to fumble his way through the prepared text of a major speech just hasn't been paying attention for the past four years.
To the extent that one speech can help shape the national conversation, it was also incredibly dangerous. The projection of American values is not just a neoconservative idea - it was a central tenet of the muscular liberalism of the pre-Vietnam Democratic Party as well. But the Bush administration's planning and execution to date has been so arrogant and inept that it is terrifying to contemplate what he's got in mind next. Iran, perhaps?
The key to Bush's address came early:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world....
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
Is that all? The problem with a goal this sweeping, as we've all seen, is that this president does not mean it as glittering rhetoric - he means it as something he actually intends to try to do. And though he said his march for freedom is "not primarily the task of arms," that has not exactly been the experience to date.
Here's how he tied it to his domestic agenda:
In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time. To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools, and build an ownership society. We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance - preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society. By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Except that we already know what it means. It's the "retirement savings" part of this that seems closest to his heart. And what he intends to do is dismantle Social Security - a system whose finances will be solvent for decades to come if he just tweaks it a bit - in order to give us all a chance to gamble our retirement away on the stock market.
Despite Bush's narrow re-election victory and low approval ratings, he is treating his second term as a ratification of everything he's done to date, and as a mandate now to do more of the same. Even Tim Russert, usually more sycophant than cynic, criticized Bush for his already-notorious Washington Post interview of last weekend, in which Bush said that last November's election was all the accountability he needed for his preposterous Iraq policies.
What we can hope for, I suppose, is that Bush's hubris, already bursting at the seams, will trip him up as his second term gets under way, forcing him to be a very different sort of president than he might like. Second-term-itis ruined Richard Nixon, and it nearly destroyed Ronald Reagan's presidency as well. (I would invoke Bill Clinton, but I'm not sure that hitting on the interns comes under the category of second-term-itis.)
Unfortunately, unlike the situation with Nixon and Reagan, Congress isn't going to stop Bush. He can only stop himself.
PROPS TO GEORGE STEPH. Once a decade, I say something nice about ABC News analyst George Stephanopoulos. Today's the day. While over on CBS Bob Schieffer was puzzling over Bush's failure to mention Iraq by name, Stephanopoulos was holding up a copy of Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy, which Bush has reportedly found so inspirational that he invited the former Soviet dissident to the White House last fall.
Sharansky's book argues - as Bush did today - that the spread of democracy and liberty throughout the world will make us all safer.
It's hard to disagree. What I worry about is Bush's notion that he, personally, can make it happen - and that unilaterally invading a country is one of the ways of accomplishing it.
WHOLE LOTT OF LOVE. Two years ago, the Bushies got some well-deserved praise for pushing then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott out of the way after he made his segregationist sympathies clear at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond.
So what was up with Lott's full-scale rehabilitation? It's not like he had been sent into exile. He's still a US senator from Mississippi. He has occasionally made himself useful, as in his opposition to the FCC's rush to deregulate media ownership even more than it already has been. But what has he done to deserve center stage at the inauguration?
Lott truly got to bask in the glow. He was just a few feet away when Bush denounced racism. He got to introduce and shake hands with Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, an African-American minister who gave the benediction. I mean, Bush let old Trent get himself cleaned up real nice. But why? I don't get it.