President Bush, our neo-New Dealer, is reaping too much unfair criticism for the way he's going about his second inaugural. He spent the entire electoral season describing a country at war, describing himself as a "war president," comparing the war on terror to World War II, and wearing designer-fatigues in front of troops perfectly trained to die for his messianic fancies. Yet here he is, about to preside over the most lavish inaugural celebration in history (not counting a few imperial coronations of the Roman and Napoleonic sort).
The criticism is unfair because what most liberal detractors refuse to acknowledge is that Bush never intended to be a war president. He was only playing one on TV. He recognized better than any Democrat that it's the only way to win an election in a country of armchair jingoes. Leaders short on policy but big on politics not only read their electorate's fears accurately but stoke and validate them, riding them to victory. This the Bush camp has been doing splendidly since 2001. It brings to mind the way Leon Gambetta, the short-lived French statesman, summed up the long-lived "Ceasarian democracy" of Napoleon III and his Karl Roves of a century and a half ago: "Fear! That is their great political means. They engender it, they inoculate it, and, once they've frightened a certain class of citizens, they present themselves as saviors, the better to strip people of their freedoms, of their civic dignity, of their public rights."
At his second inaugural, Thomas Jefferson (to whom Bush referred in his first inaugural) had reminded Americans "that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others." At his brief fourth, Roosevelt had found room to note that "we have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that 'The only way to have a friend is to be one.' " And Lincoln in his second had that line about malice toward none and charity for all.
Bush's record makes it difficult to tread in those directions, self-parody or humor of any kind being the one taboo in inaugural speeches, and America's friendship and integrity having as much value as the dollar of late. Word has it he'll stick to fear. He managed to scare the country into war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in barely existing Iraq. He's about to scare the country into waging war on its own government programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) over trumped up fiscal crises in the distant future. Never has the nation so knowledgeably re-elected its own executioner, or so willingly bought into its own bankruptcy (my emphasis). That's just the "ownership society" Bush will celebrate on Thursday. He's earned it, and so have we all.
I disagree with the guy to the extent that I feel Bush has earned every last criticism, and then some, but I like Tristam's general tone. As a nation, we certainly have earned the disrespect of the world for actually electing this bozo and, whether we deserve it or not, we are going to get what's coming to us. What goes around, comes around. I'll bet in five years you won't find anybody that'll admit to voting for him. If we're allowed to ask (or answer) such questions by then.