Soaring rhetoric is expected when a president delivers an inaugural address. No speech is more intensely anticipated — and perhaps none, in the light of subsequent history, is likely to seem more overblown.
Nearly 40 years ago, as President Richard Nixon delivered his first inaugural speech, lofty notions were conveyed by elevated language of the sort reserved for the most special of political occasions in the United States.
“The peace we seek to win is not victory over any other people, but the peace that comes ‘with healing in its wings,’ with compassion for those who have suffered, with understanding for those who have opposed us,” Nixon told the nation moments after becoming president on Jan. 20, 1969.
One of the most attentive listeners was independent journalist I.F. Stone. A few days later, he wrote that “at their inaugurals” our presidents “make us the dupes of our hopes.”
That certainly proved to be the case with Nixon, whose presidency was marked by horrific military violence inflicted on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
For the suitably gullible (a category that, alas, often seems to include TV network reporters and other journalists), an incoming president is to be taken at his word, and airy oratory is assumed to be a matter of weighty substance.
And so it was on Jan. 20, 2005, as news analysts filled airtime with laudatory treatment of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. Particular credulous attention went to the incumbent president’s declaration that U.S. foreign policy would thereafter be guided by a notable commitment to supporting the yearnings of people for democracy everywhere.
“America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” Bush proclaimed. He insisted that “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.”
Many pundits felt compelled to hail the stirring inaugural words, which seemed to go beyond the usual statements of belief in freedom. “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies,” Bush said. “We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.
“America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”
Bush made a remarkable pledge. “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.”
In view of his previous and later policies as president, Bush was pumping his inaugural oratory with disingenuous hot air. This is common. But at the time, journalists for mainline news outlets have a hard time raising tough questions as the ringing declarations fade and inaugural attendees begin to pack their souvenirs.
What’s needed from journalists — and the rest of us — is not cynicism. After all, sometimes real ideals do sincerely exist, and it’s a very good thing that they do. But we can’t learn much by putting a yardstick to words alone. Far more important are the policies and actions that a president pursues when the going gets tough in the White House. It’s in the light of those policies and actions that the value of inaugural oratory should be judged.
©2008 Creators Syndicate, Inc.