[Paleopsych] WSJ: Peggy Noonan: Way Too Much God
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Sat Jan 22 15:09:24 UTC 2005
Peggy Noonan: Way Too Much God
Was the president's speech a case of "mission inebriation"?
It was an interesting Inauguration Day. Washington had warmed up, the
swift storm of the previous day had passed, the sky was overcast but
the air wasn't painful in a wind-chill way, and the capital was full
of men in cowboy hats and women in long furs. In fact, the night of
the inaugural balls became known this year as The Night of the Long
Laura Bush's beauty has grown more obvious; she was chic in shades of
white, and smiled warmly. The Bush daughters looked exactly as they
are, beautiful and young. A well-behaved city was on its best
behavior, everyone from cops to doormen to journalists eager to help
visitors in any way.
For me there was some unexpected merriness. In my hotel the night
before the inauguration, all the guests were evacuated at 1:45 in the
morning. There were fire alarms and flashing lights on each floor, and
a public address system instructed us to take the stairs, not the
elevators. Hundreds of people wound up outside in the slush,
eventually gathering inside the lobby, waiting to find out what next.
The staff--kindly, clucking--tried to figure out if the fire existed
and, if so, where it was. Hundreds of inaugural revelers wound up
observing each other. Over there on the couch was Warren Buffet in
bright blue pajamas and a white hotel robe. James Baker was in trench
coat and throat scarf. I remembered my keys and eyeglasses but walked
out without my shoes. After a while the "all clear" came, and hundreds
of us stood in line for elevators to return to our rooms. Later that
morning, as I entered an elevator to go to an appointment, I said,
"You all look happier than you did last night." A man said, "That was
just a dream," and everyone laughed.
The inauguration itself was beautiful to see--pomp, panoply, parades,
flags and cannonades. America does this well. And the most poignant
moment was the manful William Rehnquist, unable to wear a tie and
making his way down the long marble steps to swear in the president.
The continuation of democracy is made possible by such personal
There were some surprises, one of which was the thrill of a male voice
singing "God Bless America," instead of the hyper-coloratura divas who
plague our American civic life. But whoever picked the music for the
inaugural ceremony itself--modern megachurch hymns, music that sounds
like what they'd use for the quiet middle section of a Pixar animated
film--was . . . lame. The downbeat orchestral arrangement that
followed the president's speech was no doubt an attempt to avoid
charges that the ceremony had a triumphalist air. But I wound up
thinking: This is America. We have a lot of good songs. And we watch
inaugurals in part to hear them.
Never be defensive in your choice of music.
The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad
feeling, and reluctant dislike. Rhetorically, it veered from
high-class boilerplate to strong and simple sentences, but it was not
pedestrian. George W. Bush's second inaugural will no doubt prove
historic because it carried a punch, asserting an agenda so sweeping
that an observer quipped that by the end he would not have been
surprised if the president had announced we were going to colonize
A short and self-conscious preamble led quickly to the meat of the
speech: the president's evolving thoughts on freedom in the world.
Those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral
No one will remember what the president said about
domestic policy, which was the subject of the last third of the text.
This may prove to have been a miscalculation.
It was a foreign-policy speech. To the extent our foreign policy is
marked by a division that has been (crudely but serviceably) defined
as a division between moralists and realists--the moralists taken with
a romantic longing to carry democracy and justice to foreign fields,
the realists motivated by what might be called cynicism and an
acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power--President Bush
sided strongly with the moralists, which was not a surprise. But he
did it in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something
she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance.
The administration's approach to history is at odds with what has been
described by a communications adviser to the president as the
"reality-based community." A dumb phrase, but not a dumb thought: He
meant that the administration sees history as dynamic and changeable,
not static and impervious to redirection or improvement. That is the
Bush administration way, and it happens to be realistic: History is
dynamic and changeable. On the other hand, some things are constant,
such as human imperfection, injustice, misery and bad government.
This world is not heaven.
The president's speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched
speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much
attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the
criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. "The Author of
Liberty." "God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence
because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind . . . the longing of
It seemed a document produced by a White House on a mission. The
United States, the speech said, has put the world on notice: Good
governments that are just to their people are our friends, and those
that are not are, essentially, not. We know the way: democracy. The
president told every nondemocratic government in the world to shape
up. "Success in our relations [with other governments] will require
the decent treatment of their own people."
The speech did not deal with specifics--9/11, terrorism, particular
alliances, Iraq. It was, instead, assertively abstract.
"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The
survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of
liberty in other lands." "Across the generations we have proclaimed
the imperative of self government. . . . Now it is the urgent
requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time."
"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 the world."
Ending tyranny in the world? Well that's an ambition, and if you're
going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this
declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land
somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing
and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it
any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth.
There were moments of eloquence: "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." "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because
we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery." And, to the
young people of our country, "You have seen that life is fragile, and
evil is real, and courage triumphs." They have, since 9/11, seen
And yet such promising moments were followed by this, the ending of
the speech. "Renewed in our strength--tested, but not weary--we are
ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom."
This is--how else to put it?--over the top. It is the kind of sentence
that makes you wonder if this White House did not, in the preparation
period, have a case of what I have called in the past "mission
inebriation." A sense that there are few legitimate boundaries to the
desires born in the goodness of their good hearts.
One wonders if they shouldn't ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get
more securely grounded. The most moving speeches summon us to the
cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on
earth is not.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and
author of "A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag" (Wall Street Journal
Books/Simon & Schuster), a collection of post-Sept. 11 columns, which
you can buy from the OpinionJournal bookstore. Her column appears
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