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Bush: Freedom is Powerful

What a strange thing a second-term inauguration is. It's a huge, nervous party, a kind of constitutionally mandated traffic jam, with obligatory bad entertainment (see Sean Daly's piece today in the Style section) and a profusion of Texans. I was struck by the interview Bush gave to a network the night before last in which he said his inaugural address is a great speech (finished days in advance! remember how Clinton would be dithering with his in the limo on the ride to the Capitol?). When asked what it was about, he said simply, "Freedom is powerful."

A second inaugural address can be more important than the first (see case of Abraham Lincoln). Freedom is surely the core American value, our battle cry. But I also have to think of Fred Anderson: He's a historian who, with Andrew Cayton, has just produced a book, "The Dominion of War," that re-examines our notion of being a nation that historically has been interested only in freedom. (I know, I know, no one in this administration is going to freak out because some historians are re-examining our national narrative. No White House staffer is going to burst into the Oval Office and say, "Sir, we've lost Berkeley!")

I met Anderson recently at a history conference. He's a dapper, courteous fellow in a bow tie, exceedingly gracious, and hardly a bomb-throwing radical. He's the author of a classic book on the French and Indian War, "Crucible of War." The new book with Cayton argues that our wars of freedom are interspersed with wars of empire. In a talk at the conference, Anderson said the three great wars of liberation -- the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II -- are centrally represented on the Mall in the form of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the new World War II Memorial. The Vietnam and Korean wars are ambiguously represented in the margins of the Mall, and we totally ignore the most obvious wars of national expansion -- the French and Indian War (pre-USA), the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War. (And I confess I know less about these wars combined than I know about the Florida Gators.)

History is a story we tell, and current events inevitably alter that story. What happens in Iraq has the ability to change a professor's manuscript about the War of Jenkins' Ear (that is an actual war!). And so too will Iraq and the War on Terror be analyzed and retold for countless generations. The president has a chance tomorrow to state clearly what this war is all about, to make his case to the American people and, because it's an inaugural address, the historians of the future. He will surely pound home his belief that we are transforming the world, setting off a chain reaction of democracy.

Bush used to mock nation-building, but he has become the ultimate (would-be) nation-builder. Being a true believer can sometimes make you a great leader, but it can also make you the instrument of folly. Bush's job tomorrow is to express his vision of democracy in a way that seems grounded in reality, and not just in myth.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 19, 2005; 12:02 PM ET
 
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