Bush's words sound good, but do they mask reality?


IN HIS inauguration speech yesterday, George W. Bush invoked the word freedom, and when he wasn't invoking freedom he went for its synonym, which is liberty. These are wonderful words. They remind all Americans of the things we treasure. They are part of our very DNA. All that divides us is the way we sometimes define the words, and the way we sometimes put them into action.

On the day he commenced his second term as president, Bush's speechwriters defined them poetically. America is "standing watch on distant borders," Bush said. "The call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul," he said. "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," he said.

On the last, he was addressing those in foreign lands. But, in a time of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a time when impending conflict with Iran has been reported, the definition of words becomes fuzzy. Sometimes this president's language sounded like justifications for invasions to be made at some later date.

Inaugurations are set aside as a time for healing old wounds, when we put aside party differences and celebrate the things that bind us. In that context, "freedom" and "liberty" work. We all think we know what they mean. The words unite us in a difficult time - except, in such a politically bruising hour at home, and such a killing hour abroad, they can also serve to willfully mask the details behind them.

Four years ago, when he lost the popular vote by half a million votes and found himself in the White House by the grace of the Supreme Court, Bush pledged to be "a uniter, not a divider." Then he proceeded to govern from such an ideologically conservative position that he made Ronald Reagan seem almost moderate in recollection.

Yesterday, in the aftermath of a bitterly contested election, there was not even an implied mention of the nation's divisions, except for a few quick words about "some [who] have questioned the global appeal of liberty."

But even in that brief line, the reference was fuzzy. Was that a slap at Americans who have questioned entering a war in which the president now admits there were no weapons of mass destruction, and no connection to the terrorists of Sept. 11? Or was he referring to the Iraqi insurgents so inflamed by America's presence there that, the day before yesterday, they detonated five powerful car and truck bombs across Baghdad and killed 26 people, at least nine of them members of Iraq's fledgling security forces, as that nation moves closer to election day?

Or was it a snide reference to so much of the planet's populace, freedom-loving people themselves, who nonetheless are appalled and frightened by American incursions overseas?

When he campaigned for president four years ago, Bush said, "When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming."

Yesterday, there were no admissions about the "slam dunk" war that was supposed to begin with grateful Iraqis tossing rose petals at our feet, a war that was supposed to be over in a couple of months, which is now in its second year and getting increasingly more deadly. Even a little candor might have helped heal a few distressed hearts.

Moments before he took the oath of office, Bush listened to a magnificent rendition of the "American Anthem":

Let them say of me

I was one who believed

In sharing the blessings I've received.

In a speech nearly empty of language about the way Americans live at home, the president made no mention of the enormous financial gap, the largest in history, between the nation's economic haves and have-nots, fueled in part by tax cuts for the wealthy. He made no mention of the massive deficit to be handed to the next generation. He made only fleeting mention, near the end of his speech, of his "ownership society."

But, as K. Anthony Appiah, author of The Ethics of Identity, recently wrote, "'Ownership society' is understood by conservative activists as code for fiscal policies that would ... further shift the tax burden from capital to labor; from those who can save and invest their earnings to those who must spend them."

It sounds better when you call it "ownership society."

It sounds better when you call it "freedom" and "liberty" and leave out the part about the wars that may be waiting just around the bend - just as, 44 years ago, John Kennedy stirred the nation by declaring that we would "pay any price, bear any burden" to ensure the future of liberty, and we did not suspect it would lead us deeper into Vietnam.

Yesterday, Bush had some nice lines that seemed almost to be reaching toward some Kennedyesque phrasing. But the lines drew only polite applause. They were stirring words uttered with a leaden delivery.

The biggest cheer of the day came late in the speech, when the Inauguration Day audience cheered some cops tearing down a sign somebody sneaked in. The sign said "No War."

Maybe it was some of those "freedom-loving" people leading cheers.

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