Mike Gerson, who is stepping down as President Bush's speechwriter, has a gift for language and feels the rhythms of Scripture deep in his soul. If Bush's inaugural address this week gets good reviews, he will owe many of the kudos to Gerson. To his credit, the president knows this.
Gerson is not about to consult me on this speech. But if he did, I'd argue that the president has an opportunity on Thursday for a kind of redemption. He will never have to face the voters again. He could level with us, admit mistakes and unite our nation. Imagine what Bush could say:
"I remain deeply committed to democracy in Iraq. Can anyone doubt that the Iraqi people and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein in power? But I also know that the strategy we pursued has not brought about the results I hoped for.
"I wish we had sent more troops at the outset and created order in a nation that had already suffered too much. I wish we had not pretended that the transformation of Iraq would be easy. I wish we had won more international support. I wish we had not made claims about weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be false -- claims that undermined the credibility of the great nation I lead.
"In my second term, I intend to pursue the honorable goals of our policy in new ways. By admitting our mistakes, I hope to open a new page in our relations with our longtime but now estranged allies. I understand I have a special responsibility to our men and women in harm's way, and I feel a particular obligation to members of the National Guard and reserves. They are being asked to give far more of themselves than some of us who served in those capacities during the Vietnam years ever were.
"To achieve democracy in Iraq, we must act anew. We need to ask for sacrifices not only from our men and women in uniform, but also from our fellow citizens, particularly the most privileged among us. To pay for this war, I will urge that we cancel tax cuts for the best-off Americans. I have joked that those whom others call the rich and powerful I call my political base. I ask my base to join with me in declaring that victory in this struggle for freedom and security matters more than our personal economic interests. This sacrifice would say more about our commitment to democracy in the Middle East than grand words ever could. And members of the next generation will honor us for winning this victory without burdening them with all of its costs.
"At home, I have spoken often of an ownership society. I believe devoutly that ownership promotes responsibility. Every American should have a stake in our country. And I ask all of us to acknowledge the barriers that stand in the way of ownership for the poorest members of our society.
"I like to speak plainly, so let's face it: Poor people can't save enough or invest because they simply don't have enough money. They must spend every dime they have to buy food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their children. So instead of pretending that privatizing Social Security will achieve some sort of revolution, I will propose a plan, financed by a partial continuation of the inheritance tax, to have the federal government contribute a specific sum every year to create an ownership fund for every low-income American. Hardworking poor people deserve no less. John F. Kennedy was right: 'If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.'
"Some will ask why I am now admitting failings that I could never acknowledge before. The answer is simple: I really meant it when I said that I wanted to be a uniter, not a divider. That goal is more important than ever after the events of September 11th, 2001. I want all Americans to know that when I talk about patriotism and compassion, I am not mouthing slogans to push a narrow, ideological agenda. I am describing my deepest commitments.
"After one of the bitterest election campaigns in our nation's history, I ask my friends and my domestic adversaries to join me in laying down our rhetorical arms. Let us all seek God's help so that we might answer Abraham Lincoln's call: We must show malice toward none and charity toward all."