WASHINGTON -- If President Bush's inaugural address conjured up an image of an American colossus astride the globe, the reaction at the White House to how the speech was widely perceived brought a different image to me.
His aides' rapid retreat from the president's message reminded me of former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox wowing onlookers by pedaling a bicycle backward.
Presidential aides seemed astonished that their boss' declaration to seek "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world" was taken as a bold extension of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption that sent U.S. forces into Iraq in 2003.
Mr. Bush's remarks, particularly about enforcing human rights everywhere, seemed a giant leap forward. In pledging to "persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation," he appeared to be issuing an ultimatum to such conspicuous violators of human rights as Russia, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others.
"America," he said, "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. We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people."
Then he seemed to go beyond encouragement. "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world," he said. "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."
That such rhetoric had triggered speculation about more unilateral U.S. military action should not have surprised the White House. But even the president's father felt compelled to make a rare visit to the White House press room to tell reporters that his son's inaugural address was being misinterpreted.
"People want to read a lot into it -- that this means new aggression or newly asserted military forces," said former President George H. W. Bush. "That's not what that speech is about. It's about freedom."
Unwittingly, the 41st president was acknowledging that the address was only rhetoric, not striking new policy. Seldom has a presidential inaugural address thus been deflated so swiftly by the speaker's own lieutenants.
The public and diplomatic reactions to the address and the urgent White House backpedaling from its broad implications raise the bar for the 43rd president's State of the Union address to Congress next week. In it, he is expected to lay out specifics of his second-term agenda in foreign policy as well as domestic affairs.
In the second inaugural, the president avoided any explicit reference to Iraq or the war on terrorism. And with heavy new financial burdens facing the country in pursuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he will have to do a lot of justifying to Congress, let alone taking on any other initiatives for the spread of "freedom."
One thing the second inaugural has already clarified: how far this president has come from his 2000 debate against Al Gore. Then, he flatly declared his opposition to "nation-building" and pledged that under his presidency, the United States would never be the world's policeman.
All through his first term, Mr. Bush let his rhetoric outrun his facts -- on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, regime change and the link between Iraq and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It got the country into a war that has become an albatross weighing on everything else that needs to be accomplished in his second term.
The widespread questions about Mr. Bush's intentions as expressed in his second inaugural may serve a constructive purpose. They might alert the president and his speechwriters, who may be given to rhetorical excesses, to stick to words he can back up with more than words. Don't count on it, though, from an administration driven more by ideological visions than by cold realities in a world it doesn't run -- at least not yet.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.