President Bush gave a good speech tonight. It was plainspoken and firmstanding, and he delivered it comfortably, without either bluster or ingratiation. And certainly without apology: some have wanted him to acknowledge at least some of the serious mistakes made in prosecuting the war in Iraq, and even to hold someone on high (Rummy?) accountable. No, this administration will never do that. They equate the admission of fallibility with weakness and unblinking denial with strength. It makes them seem more than a little unreal and unreachable -- all we ever see is a scripted, polished, minutely calculated performance -- but I don't know. Maybe it's good psychology. If you want a bracing declaration of resolve to stand firm coupled with a scathing critique of all the screw-ups to date, go listen to Presidential candidate Joe Biden. (The Yellow Line: "If more on the left had Biden’s ability to be both committed to success and smart in dissent, perhaps we as a nation could pull closer together.")
The couple of moments when Bush completely lost his place in the speech and misspoke, or reversed words, were jarring because he otherwise gave the appearance of being so at one with what he was saying. Either his performance skills have greatly improved, or the combination of faith, certainty, insulation from direct challenge, and no longer having to worry about reëlection has made him a much more secure man.
There's one thing that really bugs me, though. And that is the way he uses the word "freedom."
Whenever Bush says "freedom," and then looks straight at the camera with that little bright-eyed, case-closed smile, I feel like I've hit a windowless wall. The word is meant to be a thought-stopper, to evoke a reflex as blind as punching out someone who's insulted your mother. It's accompanied by the sound of millions of minds obediently slamming shut. "Freedom" is a monad, smooth, seamless, impenetrable. It's the irreducible element of goodness and democracy, as unsplittable as the atom . . . was once believed to be.
Except that, like the atom, "freedom" is really a little universe full of quirks and quarks, positive and negative charges, particles of widely varying weight and spin, forces of great violence held in miraculous but unstable equilibrium.
What does Bush mean when he says "freedom"? Freedom, of course, from the storm troopers breaking down the door, from the gulag and the extermination camp. Of course. Freedom from torture being inflicted on us . . . or in our name? Freedom to speak our minds and live our faiths. Freedom to criticize the president . . . to burn the flag??
Which freedom? Freedom from, or freedom to? The social freedoms, like for homosexuals to live in the open, that his Dobsonite base hates almost as much as the jihadi "enemies of freedom" do? Economic freedom . . . for little dreamers to start small businesses, or for huge corporations to crush them with economies of scale, tax breaks and outsourcing?
Like I said. It bugs me.