Thursday, January 20, 2005

Let it never be said that the 43rd president does not aspire to lead America to lofty heights: “[W]e are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom,” Mr. Bush declared yesterday in his second inaugural address. It was a speech short on details, heavy on ideals — in sum, a speech unapologetically American.

Speaking on the western face of the Capitol, President Bush’s words echoed some of the best of his predecessors, recalling the idealism that drives defenders of freedom: “By our efforts,” he said, “we have lit a fire … 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 the world.” On a chilly winter afternoon, the words were warm and welcome.

Remarking on the “consequential times in which we live,” the president spoke of a country that must meet the coming new age with a reaffirmation of its most cherished beliefs: “Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” Evoking John F. Kennedy’s eloquent demand that Americans ask what they could do for their country, Mr. Bush told young Americans to “[m]ake the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.”

The president refrained from listing specifis of policies or proposals of legislation. Even as he focused almost exclusively on foreign policy, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were mentioned. Insofar as it was an American speech, it was a call to the world that America’s interests are mankind’s interests. It was a speech to the democratic reformers in Iran, to the oppressed in North Korea and China and to those struggling to build democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. As it continues to address the promise of freedom at home, America will continue “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.”

The president avoided the cynicism that consumes so much of establishment Washington. It’s the cynicism which allows the president’s critics to consistently underestimate his ability to lead — and a vision of leadership is what the president offered yesterday. Cynicism has never once broken the chains of a slave nor, upon the ringing bell of liberty, inspire others to wonder, as the president asked, “Did our generation advance the cause of freedom?”

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