On his way out of the first Cabinet meeting after his re-election, US President George W. Bush gave his longtime chief speechwriter the theme for the second inaugural address: "I want this to be the freedom speech."
In the next month, the writer, Michael Gerson, had a heart attack. With two stents in his arteries, the recovering writer received a call from a president who was careful not to apply any deadline pressure.
"I'm not calling to see if the inaugural speech is OK," Bush said. "I'm calling to see if the guy writing the inaugural speech is OK."
Thursday's strongly thematic address was indeed "the freedom speech." Not only did the words "freedom, free, liberty" appear 49 times, but the president used the world-watched occasion to expound his basic reason for the war and his vision of America's mission in the world.
I rate it among the top five of a score of second-inaugurals in our history. Lincoln's profound sermon "with malice toward none" is incomparable, but Bush's second was better than Jefferson's mean-spirited pouting at "the artillery of the press."
In Bush's "second gathering" -- Lincoln called it his "second appearing" -- the Texan evoked JFK's "survival of liberty" phrase to convey his central message: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Bush repeated that internationalist human-rights idea, with a slight change, in these words: "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."
The change in emphasis was addressed to accommodationists who make "peace" and "the peace process" the No.1 priority of foreign policy. Others of us -- formerly known as hardliners, now called Wilsonian idealists -- put freedom first, recalling that the US has often had to go to war to gain and preserve it. Bush makes clear that it is human liberty, not peace, that takes precedence, and that it is tyrants who enslave peoples, start wars and provoke revolution. Thus, the spread of freedom is the prerequisite to world peace.
It takes guts to take on that peace-freedom priority so starkly. Bush, by retaliatory and pre-emptive decisions in his first term -- and by his choice of words and his tall stance in this speech, and despite his unmodulated delivery -- now drives his critics batty by exuding a buoyant confidence reminiscent of FDR and Truman.
He promised to use America's influence "confidently in freedom's cause." He jabbed at today's Thomases: "Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty, though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt."
Bush has seen the enemy and it is not us. Nor is it only a group of nations (the "axis of evil"). Nor is the prime enemy the tactic of terrorism.
The president identified the enemy (and did not euphemize it, as Nixon's writers did, as "the adversary") a half-dozen times in this speech. The archenemy of freedom, now as ever, is tyranny.
That's thinking big, with history in mind. That comes from reading Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, and sends a message of hope to democrats jailed by despots in places like China, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia.
Bush embraced "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world," but added that our active encouragement of reform "is not primarily the task of arms."
That was also a reference to Iraq, where the greatest danger to post-election democracy is less from Zarqawi's terrorist murderers than from the legion of Baathists who want to reimpose Saddam's brand of tyranny.
A metaphorical nitpick: He said our liberation of millions lit "a fire in the minds of men and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." I would have replaced "this untamed fire," which could be dangerous, with "the light from this fire," which would have illuminated the "darkest corner." (Once a speechwriter.)
Evidence that Bush's "freedom speech" was tightly edited for time was in his concluding evocation of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
Cut out of a near-final draft was the line on the side of the bell from Leviticus that rings out Bush's theme: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."