W., Underestimated. The Surprisingly Good Speeches of President Bush

The London newspaper editorialists put protective cover over their high praise for President Bush's recent address at Whitehall Palace by insisting that it was much better than his usual speeches. It was, they said, clear, direct, substantive, a powerful tour d'horizon, evocative, and touched with understated, well-rendered humor. It was a triumph, they concluded — unlike his usual speeches. A familiar refrain, this. Before any key event, press commentary on the upcoming performance of George W. Bush is nearly always dismissive. The president's supposed faults are caricatured. Gloom about how poorly he will do is widespread. Then, virtually always, if the event is important enough, the president steps to the plate, gets a solid extra-base hit, and drives in a few more runs.

It was like this at his inaugural address — it had been like this at his address accepting the nomination of his party the summer before. He always does better than predicted. The opponents he has defeated in debates, the prognosticators of failure, and all his detractors, continue invincibly to "misunderestimate" him. And to cover over the reality of his triumphs with the veils of their own ironclad preconceptions.

COMMANDING PERFORMANCES I have just reviewed two collections of the president's speeches since he has been in office, the first covering the first three months of his term (January 20 — April 19, 2001), including his surprisingly praised inaugural address, and the second, which covers the painful year following September 11, 2001, that is, the first twelve months of the war against terrorism.

These 32 or more speeches compare favorably with any collection of Ronald Reagan's best speeches. Consistency is their main virtue — a consistently high level of rhetorical power, satisfying to the soul as well as to the occasion. While some of Reagan's speeches soared higher, others fell off the mark by being a little over-written. Reagan, of course, could pull off reading any speech well, when necessary bringing to bear just enough personal schmalz to carry off even the over-written ones with good effect. He could signal with a knowing nod that even if his words got a little fancy, he was still just a local boy from a small town in Illinois.

George W. is more plainspoken than Reagan, but capable of getting off quite moving and poetic lines of his own, when the occasion calls for it, as in his term it again and again has. On these occasions, W. usually (but not always) relies on shrewdly chosen words from the American tradition to carry him, whose sentiments he obviously feels keenly. Just behind his plainspokenness, one can see a serious, deeply convicted man. Accused in Britain of being "moralistic," President Bush reminded a nationwide audience that it was from men like Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce, whose activist crusades swept slavery from the Atlantic, that Americans learned their morals, and from Britain that the Puritans in America snatched their moral fire.

American idealism and an American sense of history burn in his heart, as when he told the United Nations in New York (November 10, 2002): "We stand for the permanent hopes of humanity, and those hopes will not be denied....We did not ask for this mission, yet there is honor in history's call....This calling is worthy of any life, and worthy of every nation. So let us go forward, confident, determined, and unafraid."

Those last words capture much about this president: "Confident, determined, and unafraid."

Hear him tell the paratroopers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky (November 21, 2001): "Thanks to you, the people of Afghanistan have the hope of a better life. Thanks to you, many Afghan women are walking in public again, and walking with dignity." And then these concluding words: "Every one of you is dedicated to something greater than yourself. You put your country ahead of your comfort. You live by a code, and you fight for a cause. And I'm honored to be your Commander-in-Chief."

Simple. Declarative. Straight from the shoulder — and straight to the proud military heart.

Everyone at Fort Campbell knew that President Bush was putting his whole presidency on the line. There were so many ways in which the Afghanistan campaign could have gone wrong. Afghanistan had bogged down whole Soviet armies for ten years. The troops from Fort Campbell and elsewhere had done miracles.

"LET'S ROLL" Just two months after that fateful September 11, the president told a crowd in Atlanta (November 8, 2001): "The moment the second plane hit the second building — when we knew it was a terrorist attack — many felt that our lives would never be the same." He added a great deal of exact detail, which practically all listeners could vividly remember. Then a few moments later, he drew his words to this conclusion:

"Courage and optimism led the passengers on Flight 93 to rush their murderers to save lives on the ground, led by a young man whose last known words were the Lord's Prayer and 'Let's roll.' He didn't know he had signed on for heroism when he boarded the plane that day. Some of our greatest moments have been acts of courage for which no one could have ever prepared.

"We will always remember the words of that brave man, expressing the spirit of a great country. We will never forget all we have lost, and all we are fighting for. Ours is the cause of freedom. We've defeated freedom's enemies before, and will defeat them again. We cannot know every turn this battle will take. Yet we know our cause is just and our ultimate victory is assured. We will, no doubt, face new challenges. But we have our battle orders: My fellow Americans, let's roll."

There they are again. Those terse declarative sentences, laden with heavy historical memory and present emotion but seemingly matter-of-fact, like much of the best of American writing down the generations. Ending in "Let's roll." Brave men hurrying one-by-one down the aisle to the call of duty, even unto death.

Then, still closer to the event itself, not even ten days after September 11, the president told a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress in the once targeted but still-standing Capitol Building: "I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people."

Even earlier, while wisps of bitter smoke still rose from the ruins of the Twin Towers in New York, at the Day of National Prayer and Remembrance in National Cathedral on September 14, the president recalled several heroes: the man in the towers who had stayed till the end with a quadriplegic friend; a priest who had died giving the last rites to a fireman; two office workers who carried a disabled stranger down 68 floors to safety; and a group of men who drove day and night from Dallas to Washington to bring skin grafts for war victims. "In these acts," the president said,

"and in many others, Americans showed a deep commitment to one another, and an abiding love for our country. Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called the warm courage of national unity.... America is a nation full of good fortune, with so much to be grateful for. But we are not spared from suffering. In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom's home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time."

In these words, and many others, the President Bush spoke for the whole of America's traditions. Other presidents had done the same before him. He spoke with that particular sense of history, and sin, and tragedy, and duty, that has always marked our nation, steeped in a Protestant reading of history as old as St. Augustine's The City of God. A vision of ever-recurrent human ambition, greed, pride, overreaching, betrayal, cruelty, the vision that often marks the pages of The Federalist, steeling the heart in a sense of duty, confidence, optimism and chosen-ness, as if it is self-evident that hard times deliver a special calling, great tasks are what the luckiest of humans are made for, and the generations chosen for the hardest tasks of all are history's ennobled ones.

ALL-AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY There is a depth and ballast to the president's speeches that few have remarked, a powerful philosophy of history, an Actonian concentration on liberty as the scarlet thread of human affairs, their interpretive key. To have this vision, it is not necessary to be a philosopher. It is enough to be an American, and to love the nation's history, and to walk in silence over its sacred spots, to dream its dreams, and to see in its dark nights "the better angels of our nature."

The president's eloquence on formal occasions is right before our eyes. We have felt it. We have been moved by it. Again and again, he has surprised his chroniclers by how beautifully he has spoken when the occasion called for it. And then so many of his critics have gone right back to thinking of him as Mrs. Malaprop, even (God forbid) the moron. What a tragic sense of unreality grips his critics, not only about this president, but about the world he so realistically describes for them as he fulfills the rhetorical mission of the presidency. A curious, almost willful blindness afflicts them. Fortunately, the brave men and women who lay down their lives for all of us seem to hear him loud and true. The soldiers, the firemen, the cops in the street love him.

President Bush is just as good in the crucial unscripted moments of his presidency, as when he shouted out at Ground Zero three days after the horrors, after a worker in the crowd interrupted him: "I can't hear you."

The president replied through a yellow bullhorn slowly and distinctly: "I can hear you. (Applause.) I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. (Applause.) And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon. (Applause.)"

The exhausted, back-straining crowd understood him perfectly, for they shouted back instantaneously: "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

The president's State of the Union message just before the war in Iraq — much attacked by his domestic enemies many months later, but much cheered at the time — and then his later speeches at West Point, at the American Enterprise Institute, and before the National Endowment for Democracy, crowned by the world-acclaimed address in London this November, rank with any brace of speeches by any president, laying out an entirely new strategic concept for their time. Of the London speech, an op-ed in The Independent (usually one of the more anti-Bush papers), said it was "the finest piece of political oratory since the era of Kennedy and DeGaulle."

For in these major speeches the president has been meticulously painting the image, not just of a war against terrorism but, instead, of a long, world-changing, multi-frontal struggle for worldwide democracy and human rights, especially in the lands where these have been the most neglected for the last 50 years, in the Arab and other lands of the Middle East.

His is a new strategic vision for the Middle East, not just military and not just political, but also cultural and aimed at the whole of civil society — from a free press to free associations, with ample space for multitudinous citizen initiatives. Democracy, he more than implies, requires much more than merely voting. (There is a precedent for the beginnings of a Middle Eastern liberal society in the Egyptian "golden age of liberalism" from 1850-1940.)

Still, maybe this task cannot be accomplished now. Maybe it is biting off too much, at least in this generation. But as a vision for the long term, it can hardly be wrong. It is in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and — perhaps, more to the point — with our own Declaration of Independence.

The rights that Americans claim are not American rights, but natural rights, which belong to every human being on this planet, most emphatically including Muslims and Arabs. As the president himself said in London: "It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty; it is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it." Almost single-handedly, the president (and Prime Minister Blair) are stirring the world to match its deepest convictions with courage.

Their words are brave, and their actions braver. They have put their careers on the line for the liberty of millions yet unfree.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published in National Review Online December 2, 2003