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Inauguration: Instant Analysis

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Managing Editor
Thursday, January 20, 2005; 12:15 PM

Directly after President Bush's inaugural address, Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online to give his instant analysis on the speech and take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

_____About Your Host_____
Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Previously he was managing editor, second in command of The Post's newsroom, from 1991 until 1998. Earlier, he was a foreign correspondent in Vietnam and Moscow, and covered the Senate and the 1980 presidential campaign. He did a stint as editor of Outlook before becoming the assistant managing editor for National News in 1985 and later deputy managing editor. He is the author of six books including "The News About the News," which he co-authored with Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Hello and welcome to an Inaugural Chat. We saw again today, I thought, how good President Bush's speechwriters are. These are wordsmiths of the first rank. It was a lovely speech.

But what did it mean? I confess to feeling there's something of a contradiction between his ringing endorsement of freedom everywhere and his administration's dependence on some of the ugliest, least free governments in Asia and the Middle East to prosecute the war on terrorism. If, as Bush said today, "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," what about Egypt? Pakistan? Uzbekistan? Kazakhstan? Saudi Arabia? None of these is remotely free, yet the Bush administration never criticizes or pressures them in any visible way. How can the imprisoned dissidents in all those countries possibly take the President's words seriously?

I re-read Bush's first Inaugural Address this morning, and there is a striking consistency between that speech and today's. They are obviously written by the same fine writers, and they express the same broad (and uncontroversial) sentiments in favor of freedom abroad and more justice at home. Does that portend a second term similar to the first? I doubt it. I think we're in for discontinuity somehow, though I can't today predict how. In my lifetime, only Eisenhower had a second term similar to the first. The odds are against it.

I'd love to hear from others what they thought of the speech.

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McLean, Va.: Is it just me, or is this speech just a rehash without much new material? Several portions of this speech seem to be lines that I've heard from Bush before -- very general, very vague, and a tendency towards forced multiculturalism.

Robert G. Kaiser: The speech is definitely a reaffirmation and restatement of established Bush themes, as you can confirm by rereading the first inaugural address (many copies easily found with Google). If there's hard news in there I missed it.

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Big Rapids, Mich.: Fireworks over the White House on Inauguration Eve. Too many Inaugural Balls to count. Is this extravagence called for while we have Soldiers and Marines dying on a daily basis? A little humility goes a long way.

Robert G. Kaiser: Several comments like this one have reached me already. I leave it to others to pass judgement on the appropriateness of this gala Inaugural, but I think it does lend support to the hypothesis that in Washington we live in a bubble. Richard Cohen has an angry column about this today, to which I hope we can link here. Many will disagree with it, but I think Cohen is on to something in describing our willing suspension of disbelief in this capital.

washingtonpost.com: Fool's Gold (Post, Jan. 20)

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Chengdu, China: Will the President tend to improve Sino-US relations further during his second term? Will he sell more advanced weapons to Taiwan?

Robert G. Kaiser: I love the reach of washingtonpost.com! My answers are, yes and yes. The Chinese buildup, especially along the coast nearest Taiwan, justifies, many American official sbelieve, continued sales of arms to Taiwan. But the Bush administration seems eager to continue strengthening relations with China.

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Virginia: It looked as if there were some hecklers in the audience. Was that so?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm no closer to the scene than you, sorry. (I'm in the Post newsroom.)

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Brussels, Belgium: Doesn't it shock Americans that the inauguration in Washington will cost $40 million, and will take place just a few miles away from suburbs in need of nearly everything?

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's another wrinkle on the appropriateness question. Again, I'll leave it to each of you to decide what's shocking and what isn't.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why in the world would the Washington Post give $100,000 to the president's inaugural? It's a publicly-traded company and one that an observer might believe would want to appear neutral in the political malestrom. The editor doesn't vote so he can't be accused of bias and yet the paper as an institution gives a barrel full of money to a partisan president. I'm missing something, obviously.

washingtonpost.com: Influence Being Peddled! (Post, Jan. 14)

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the question. It was our parent company that made the donation, and did so to secure tickets to Inaugural events for Post advertisers. Like a lot of my colleagues in the newsroom, I wish we hadn't done it--this year, or for the two Clinton inaugurations, and the previous Bush one four years ago.

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St. Paul, Minn.: I thought the speech was excellent, and the emphasis on freedom stirring and important. I think, moreover, that the President recognizes that the perfect must never become the enemy of the good. It is important to seek to advance liberty. At times, that means working with nations that fall short of the ideal. But that doesn't mean that we never seek to influence them toward the ideals of liberty. While it is true that we work now with nations like Pakistan, whose record of respecting liberty is abysmal, the advance of freedom which they however wittingly or unwittingly assist (it may be self-preservation) will eventually take rot there as well. And working with them will give us greater opportunities to influence them in a positive way.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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Churchville, Pa.: President Bush's speech seemed a bit dissonant with the American people's sentiments in that he seems to be lauding his 'democratic success' in Iraq. How do you think the public will interpret his speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: If you've been here before, you know that I am either 1)wisely reluctant to guess how the American people will react to anything or 2) wrong. But I caution you against the presumption that you, or anyone, knows "the American peoples' sentiments" on any subject.
Perhaps you are referring indirectly to the polls that show a growing majority of Americans feeling the war was a mistake and is going badly. This is a huge problem for Bush's second term, I think, since there is very little, if any, chance that Iraq is going to begin looking like a triumph for democracy any time soon. In that sense, I agree with the gist of your comment.

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London, England: Do American media personnel ever tire of bashing this President? This should be a time of goodwill toward the president, and I am shocked at how the partisan divisions creep into an assessment of even an event like this!;

Robert G. Kaiser: In this country, serious practitioners of journalism respect the historic role our Founders gave us when they wrote the First Amenment to the Constitution. Our job is not to cheer, it is to hold powerful people, most especially elected officials, accountable for their acts, and for the inconsistencies between their words and deeds. I've been at The Post for four decades, and I can assure you, we dish it out against presidents of both parties when that seems like the best way to fulfill our duty.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Metaphor and symbolism, metaphor and symbolism. I was particualrly rankled by Pres. Bush's use of "day of fire" to describe 9/11 and his use of the metaphor to describe America's response, the war in Iraq, as the call to "return the fire of democracy." In sharp disagrement with you, Robert, I hardly think the writers of Bush's address were the finest wordsmiths that Bush could have employed.

On the ABC network, the voice of protestors, particularly during the latter part of the inaugrual address could be heard--loudly, but not clearly. In San Antonio, one of our most prominent poets (a woman) has created lapel pins that read, "I'm the other half" meaning...(who didn't vote for Bush.) Given the devisiveness of the country even during this 55th inaugural address, where does Bush go from here? Even Rep. Bill Thomas, House Ways and Means and from my hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., says Bush's Social Security reforms will be DOA on arrival in Congress.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. You're a sterner literary critic than I, I guess.

Where from here is a good question. Watch the president and his people; they busily claim a mandate that others may dispute. Karl Rove on NPR this morning had a clever line: Bush, he said, won a bigger percentage of the vote than any president running for reelection since 1988. Think about it; that would be one president, Bill Clinton in 1996, who won 49.something to Bush's 51.something this time. When they do things like that, they make me think they are looking for ways to con us into thinking there is a sweeping mandate for the Bush program.

But the polls all show that there is not. More important, the nervousness among Republicans on Capitol Hill, to which you allude, is powerful evidence of their own doubt that the country is ready for the Bush platform to be enacted. Stay tuned.

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New York, N.Y.: I wish the people complaining about the money spent on the inauguration would identify who they voted for. I wonder if Kerry had won would they be complaining.

There is an inauguration once every four years and it is a celebration of not only the victor, but of the American system and of the transfer of power peacefully. It's one day, using mostly privately donated funds.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment.

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Iowa: Alas, after too many high-flown inaugural addresses rife with fulsome phrases and well-honed words, I have adopted the policy of "watch what he does, not what he says."

Robert G. Kaiser: A very good policy, in my opinion. My talented colleague David Von Drehle wrote a wonderful piece today about Inaugural speeches through the ages, which I hope we can link to here. Very, very rarely (Jefferson's first, Lincoln's second, FDR's first), the speech is an important contribution to a moment of national crisis and a genuine harbinger of important things to come. Most of the time it's just blather. Reread Clinton's two speeches if you doubt this.

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washingtonpost.com: History Will Judge the Message and Its Messenger (Post, Jan. 20)

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Ashland, Mo.: Thanks for doing this again. Is there any possibility you could do it at least once a month?

My real question is to note that during the campaign you observed that political reporters could find 2000 Bush voters who were going to vote for Kerry, but could not find 2000 Gore voters who would vote for Bush. What are your conclusions as to why Bush received so many more votes this time compared to 2000?

Robert G. Kaiser: You're welcome. I expect I will be back at least once a month, as events warrant a discussion. The next one ought to be for the State of the Union speech, barring unforseen developments.

The big story we missed in 2004 was the extent of the GOP's get-out-the-vote effort in rural and exurban areas, particularly in Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri and a few others. Kerry got millions more votes than Gore did in 2000, but Bush got even more votes beyond his 2000 result. The turnout was the highest in a generation or more--since 1968, if memory serves.

I don't think there's much mystery about why Bush got more votes than Kerry. Americans don't like changing presidents, and don't like it especially during a war. They were, as I wrote all last year, ready to consider an alternative to Bush, who was one of the least popular incumbents to run for reelection in the modern era. But Kerry failed to persuade enough people that he was a good replacement for Bush, or that he was worth making a change for in mid-war. And the fervid Bush base turned out in droves.

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New Delhi, India: Certainly, a lofty speech. If he is able to move even a little in the direction espoused in the speech, it certainly will mark a change in global affairs. Do you think he personally will rise to the ideals that he has set out? And to what extent will he be able to make tangible difference in the lives of those ruled by injustice?

Robert G. Kaiser: Excellent question. I guess I tipped my hand in my initial comment at the beginning of the discussion. To persuade the world (or me) of the sincerity of his announced commitment to the promotion of liberty everywhere, I think the president will have to do some things he hasn't done yet to pressure countries over which he has some influence to loosen up their own regimes as a prelude, at least, to more democracy.
I should add that I'm not recommending a particular policy, or proposing that we tell Hosni Murbarek to shape up or we'll cut Egypt off our list of allies and stop propping up his regime as we do now. that would be a radical and risky step; there are lots of good arguments against it. But I think it is fair and proper to point out the difference between the president's rhetoric and the reality, for example, of Mubarek's authoritarian regime, and the United States's reluctance to try to change it.

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Anonymous: If Kerry had won, his ardent supporters would have insisted he just have a few visitors over for tea and poundcake...

Robert G. Kaiser: Anonymous? Compared to these other posters who all identify themselves? Not hardly. I believe I am the only unanonymous participant in this discussion.

And of course you're right about the poundcake. Not.

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Fairfax, Va.: I voted for President Bush not because I was enthralled by him but because he was the better candidate. Based on the speech, do you think this next term will contain little more humility? I think he would go along way with the public if he admitted some mistakes.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. I was really intrigued with this exchange between our White House reporters, Mike Fletcher and Jim VanDeHei, and Bush in their interview last week:

The Post: In Iraq, there's been a steady stream of surprises. We weren't welcomed as liberators, as Vice President Cheney had talked about. We haven't found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn't gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn't anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I'm grateful....

This is the Bush who couldn't answer during the campaign when asked to enumerate mistakes he had made as President. He clearly has a powerful reluctance to admit error or hold his own people accountable for their errors.

Is this good politics, wise, or dumb? I really don't know. Obviously some people would pick each of those answers, or other ones. But Bush's stubborness up to now persuades me that we shouldn't hold our breaths for him to turn over a new leaf in the second term.

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washingtonpost.com: Full Transcript: President Bush's Second Inaugural Address

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Charlottesville, Va.: I love these "Instant Analyses" you do.

Would you elaborate on what you mean by a "discontinuity" between the first and second terms? I know you said you couldn't predict how that would manifest, but how would you characterize his first term and what circumstnaces might contribute to the second being different?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. This may just be my newspaperman's hopes, but I expect unscheduled, unanticipated events to be as important in term two as they were in term one. It's easy now to forget how totally 9/11 changed absolutely everything. I don't predict something that big, but there are so many risky situations in front of Bush now that it just seems a reasonable hunch to me that something will happen to throw him off. The plunging dollar is one; the social security debate and its potential political consequences is another; the budget deficit and its impact is a third; the possibility of terrorist acts here or anywhere in the world is a fourth; you can keep this list going for the rest of the afternoon.

The biggest problem facing Bush is Iraq. The prospect for a happy ending in Iraq is remote. The prospect of a happy ending before the 2006 elections is a lot remoter. The county has already turned against this war, the polls tell us. Remember, a majority never turned against the Vietnam war in the same way. This is just a huge practical and political problem for the president, and if he has an answer to it, I haven't seen it.

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Burtonsville, Md.: For whom, do you think, will these brilliant Wordsmiths be crafting the 2009 inaugural address?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not going anywhere near that question.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Without passing judgement on this -- I was surprised about the non-separation of church and state in this ceremony. Again and again the separation issue is brought up in everyday politics (often about petty things), and all of a sudden, during the inauguration it appears as if this is not an issue at all.

Robert G. Kaiser: Look at LBJ's Inaugural address in 1965. Look at the Founding Fathers' speeches from the 18th and 19th Century. God has been politicians' partner in this country from the beginning. Personally I think it is entirely possible to refer to God on occasions like today's, to have prayers (as the House and Senate do every day that they meet), to call ourselves One Nation, Under God---and still maintain a meaningful separation of church and state.

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Waldorf, Md.: Did he really say 'Sermon on the Mount'?

washingtonpost.com: Transcript: "Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people."

Robert G. Kaiser: He did.

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Washington, D.C.: So, what did you think of that closing prayer?

Robert G. Kaiser: sorry, missed it. I'd already begun here.

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Bethesda, Md.: How was the tussle regarding D.C.'s homeland security funds being used for the inaugural resolved?

Robert G. Kaiser: To the city's disadvantage, so far.

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Inspiring inaugural addressed: How do you rate JFK's "ask not" speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: Read Von Drehle, linked to above. JFK's was great rhetoric; it sure swept up this college freshman at the time. But it was totally vague when delivered. Later, the Peace Corps and other vehicles gave young Americans an opportunity to in fact try to find things they could "do for their country," spawning a generation of public spirited citizens. I think Kennedy deserves some credit for that.

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Annandale, Va.: Comment on the speech: I found it uninspiring. At least GWB's first speech gave me hope that he would concern himself with the rights and hopes of all Americans. Now, I know that his actions won't match his words. How sad that my own President has turned "freedom" into a word that causes me to cringe every time he says it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment.

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Austin, Tex.: What do you expect Bush's relationship with Congress to look like over the next couple of years? With substantial Republican majorities in both houses and the Democrats looking fairly shellshocked, you'd think it would smooth sailing. But I'm not so sure, somehow....

Robert G. Kaiser: You're right not to be sure. Interestingly, I sense a lot less hesitation and doubt among Democrats today than existed four years ago. Bush snookered them in 2001, and knocked them for a loop in 2002, both experiences that are very much on Democratic minds in Congress today. The improvement of the Republican position in the Senate will make it harder than it was for Democrats to block things they don't like, and I suspect they won't try to block as often as they did in the last Congress, but block they will on occasion. It will not be pretty.

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One of 9 percent in D.C. who voted for George W. Bush: I agree with the earlier statement regarding the expense of the inauguration. This day is to celebrate the peaceful transition of power, unparalleled in the history of the world. This day comes not at the end of a bayonnet or the barrel of a gun. Instead, free people spoke with their vote without coersion or fear. So what that their is revelry and expense. We are the envy of the world. Thousands every year come or long to come to this country. We have such a great influx of capital because this is the safest place in the world to invest. So, all you Bush haters, get over it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. My travels in Europe, particularly, last year suggested it would not be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which we are the envy of at least that part of the world, but I take your point.

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Falls Church, Va.: I was somewhat disappointed in the speech. It could have been an opportunity to reunite the country and reach out, and instead I saw it as a justification of the war, once again. Although I don't disagree with the President on every issue, I certainly disagree with him on the issue of the war. It has unnecessarily turned so much of the world against us. In short, I heard nothing that brought me back "into the fold," although there would have been many ways to do so.

Robert G. Kaiser: Really? He could have won you over? I'm dubious. And this is part of the big problem he faces domestically. I don't know about you personally, but a lot of anti-Bush Americans, and not just Democrats, have told me they can no longer believe what he says. Credibility is a hard thing to restore, once lost. My campaign reporting this year convinced me that the overwhelming majority of Kerry voters were anti-Bush voters, and I mean ANTI. That isn't easily repaired.

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Arlington, Va.: I am scripturally-astute, and I noticed more than a few subtle bible references and open references to religion. How does this sit with you, and have you heard many criticisms of it? Thanks in advance.

Robert G. Kaiser: Scriptually-astute is a wonderful new category! And, I suspect, an important one for trying to parse a big Bush speech like this one. As suggested earlier, religious references don't bother me personally, but I am NOT scriptually astute, so I have missed allusions that people like you have perceived or understood. Can you give us more specifics about this speech's scriptual allusions?

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Bois le Roi, France: How did you like Trent Lott being resurrected from the dead and occupyiong center-stage at this inauguration ? I was hoping the guy was dead for politics. Anything in that tea-leaf to read ?

Robert G. Kaiser: His committee chairmanship entitled him to play that role, I think. No bigger meaning. He will not be back as a national figure.

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Fresno, Calif.: Here's a completely, off the wall and irrelevant question... but does any one know what's on the menu for the Congressional luncheon?

washingtonpost.com: Fit For A President (Post, Jan. 19)

Robert G. Kaiser: Try this.

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Washington, D.C.: An emphasis of the speech was the spread of freedom and liberty. It seems like this is an indication that we will be taking further military action against countries that do not conform to our ideals of democracy. Or is there some other way to spread freedom and liberty in the manner that President Bush is referring to? I myself cannot think of any. Thank you for your answer.

Robert G. Kaiser: There are lots of other ways. I'd argue that Ford, Carter and Reagan all promoted freedom behind the Iron Curtain by encouraging processes that ultimately contributed to the unraveling of communism and the Soviet empire. We can nudge others into being more democratic, require it as the price of participation in the global economy, etc.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks to all for participating. Four more years will include, I hope, a lot of interesting discsussions on washingtonpost.com.

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