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WHAT'S HE BEEN READING'
- Why Bush's chief speechwriter had a heart attack

The interval between the swearing-in of an American president and his 'State of the Union' address is a period of limited activity in Washington. The victors are usually recovering from the endless partying that is a part of the presidential inauguration, and the losers are introspecting and lying low, allowing those euphoric from their win in the previous year-end's election to savour their victory.

This year, however, the story is different. Some 48 hours after George W. Bush had taken the world's most powerful office for the second time, his father did something very unusual. George Herbert Walker Bush, who was the 41st American president, walked into the White House briefing room and began interpreting his son's inaugural speech, which proclaimed that 'America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one'The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world'.

In America, where the actions of former presidents are carefully tailored by an elaborate establishment, which continues to run their lives even though they have given up office, they just don't do anything on the spur of the moment, and nothing at all if the son of a former president is now running the White House or if the wife of a former president hopes to run the White House some day. 'People want to read a lot into it ' that this means new aggression, or newly asserted military forces,' father Bush told reporters in the briefing room, 'That is not what that speech is about. It is about freedom.'

Ever since Bush promised on the steps of Capitol Hill to spread liberty and democracy all over the world, all through the normally placid post-inaugural weekend and into this week, America has been convulsed by the implications of what some ' like William Safire, in one of his final columns before retiring ' consider among the top five of similar second-term inaugural speeches in US history. But in much of the Third World, which has seen its Jayalalithaas and Laloo Prasad Yadavs in action, the reaction to what Americans see as the new 'Bush commandment' has been sceptical at best, cynical at worst.

In Beijing, where the state-run newspapers mirror the thoughts within Zhongnanhai, the walled compound that is roughly the equivalent of the Kremlin in Moscow, the People's Daily wrote: 'No banquet under the sun will last forever. After the firework fades away, Washington is still under a dark sky. The sole superpower sends a sense of inauspiciousness to the world'America, where is you heading for [sic]' The newspaper editorialized that 'in foreign policy, American nationalism takes a form of a mixture of morality and pragmatism. Sometimes America holds ideology as the benchmark, deciding a friend or foe by American values, beliefs and political considerations; sometimes it exercises double standards for the sake of national interest, showing a certain degree of moral hypocrisy'.

For once, much of the world outside America would agree with these views in a newspaper founded by communists a year before they proclaimed their Chinese state. But a huge gap exists between this global view of the next four White-House years and a contrary one in America, especially in those parts of America, which voted overwhelmingly for Bush in November 2004.

For politicians who want to leave a legacy of their rule, the best guide is history. But the problem for Bush in scripting his inaugural speech has been that there have only been three US presidents before him who were re-elected in the shadow of a war. None of them can offer him any guidance because two of these predecessors ' Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt ' went into their re-election campaign knowing that the wars they were waging were ending, with victory on their side. Richard Nixon did not win in Vietnam, but peace was on the horizon when he was re-elected. In any case, he did not start the war in Indo-China. No wonder then, that Michael Gerson, the chief speech-writer in the White House, suffered a heart attack within days of Bush telling him, shortly after his re-election in November, that he wanted to deliver a 'freedom speech' on January 20. Gerson recovered and wrote for the president a draft address, which mentioned 'liberty' or its synonyms nearly 50 times in a span of 17 minutes of speaking time.

Bush's search for a legacy has recently exposed him to the world of books, if usually reliable accounts of the goings-on in the White House that are now doing the rounds in Washington are any guide. For more than three years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the relationship between Bush and books was encapsulated in images of a confused president sitting in a primary school after he was told of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and reading the story of 'My Pet Goat' to children. Bush has now demonstrated a determination to live down that image.

Recently, he advised members of the White House press corps to read The Case for Democracy, a book by Natan Sharansky, once a Soviet dissident, now an Israeli politician on the rise. About a fortnight after the re-election of Bush, Sharansky was in the national security adviser's office in the White House executive office, where he found Condoleezza Rice reading his book. Rice told Sharansky that she was reading the book because Bush was reading it too. Sycophancy, it would seem, has taken roots in Washington. Several White House reporters have read the book too.

Since then, in her confirmation testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee for the job of secretary of state, Rice identified herself with Sharansky's view of the world. On the day he called on Rice, Sharansky and his co-author, Ron Dermer, an Israeli journalist, met Bush for more than an hour in the Oval Office. According to Washington grapevine, Bush later invited the Cold-War historian, John Lewis Gaddis, to the White House and questioned him in detail about the legacy of the 19th-century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. In the context of Bush's assertion last week to spread democracy worldwide, it is Sharansky's views which are now getting all the attention in Washington. The author believes that democracy in West Asia is a pre-requisite to ending terrorism and securing peace between the Arabs and the Palestinians. Shortly after Tom Clancy published his military thriller, The Hunt for Red October, Ronald Reagan, another successful Republican president, also of questionable intellectual depth, extolled the book at a press conference. Many believe Reagan's determination to dismember the Soviet Union was at least partly influenced by this work of fiction.

Whatever may be the president's intentions in making his inaugural speech a manifesto for his next four years in office, the realists in the American establishment, who are alarmed by the turn of events in Iraq and within America, are not willing to take any chances. Every day, since Bush ostensibly declared war on oppressive societies and their rulers last week, there has been at least one major leak in the media that is meant to undercut what Bush claims to have set out to do.

We now know, verbatim, conversations between Bush and Canada's prime minister, Paul Martin, during Bush's visit to Ottawa recently, a visit that was supposed to have been an olive branch from the White House. What has been revealed is offensive to US-Canadian friendship, and meant to show that Bush has not changed for any better in his second term. We also know that for at least two years, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has been secretly running an intelligence outfit which has intruded into the CIA's turf and possibly weakened, not strengthened, America's security. Men like Richard Haass, who were members of the Bush team until not long ago, have been more open. Haass has cited the example of post-communist Serbia to warn how wrongly things could go if democracy is made a mantra. 'The bottom line is that while the nature of other societies should always be a foreign policy consideration, it cannot and should not always be the foreign policy priority,' he wrote, the most critical comment so far by anyone who has been part of the Bush administration.

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