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Richard Cohen

Onward and Upward and . . .

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page A15

The reviews of George Bush's inaugural speech are in. Some pronounced it good, some great; some saw it as too religious, some as too vague, some as too militaristic and some as not militaristic enough. As for myself, I am here to say I liked it better the first time. John F. Kennedy said more or less the same thing at his inaugural.

Both Bush and Kennedy called for the growth of democracy around the world. They both had caveats. The goal, while worthwhile, is "not primarily the task of arms," Bush said. Kennedy said something pretty similar: "Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms . . . but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle."

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Bush said, "The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations." Kennedy could not have agreed more. He said, "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Bush drenched his speech in the amorphous American religion, mentioning God in one way or another so often that even Peggy Noonan, a prominent conservative commentator, was turned off. But Kennedy was no slouch in that department, either. Bush said human rights are a gift from God -- a "just God," he said at one point -- and Kennedy said, "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God." They could shake on that.

Both presidents mentioned fire. Kennedy cited one that "can truly light the world," while Bush said that the fire is "in the minds of men." Bush's is a much more vivid phrase but then, as the New York Sun points out, the president had some help. It comes, word for word, from Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed." This kind of thing can happen when you're a compulsive reader like Bush.

Enough. My point is not that Bush and his speechwriters plagiarized Kennedy -- the wording is not all that close, anyway -- it's rather that they share the same thoughts. With some minor exceptions, it would have been possible all these years later for Bush to have delivered Kennedy's speech. Substitute terrorism for communism and there you have it: a never-ending crusade against some ism or another. The minute you knock one down another pops up.

This sort of language has been a staple of American inaugurals for some time. It reflects something in the American character -- a striving, a missionary's zeal for just one more soul. Even in the depth of the Cold War, when you would have thought America had challenges aplenty, President Eisenhower in 1959 established the Commission on National Goals. (Idle hands and all of that.) Two years and a couple of weeks later, Kennedy supplied the goals himself -- nothing less than an all-out battle against "the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." Soon we were in Vietnam.

Is there cause and effect? Many historians think so. Kennedy's "trumpet" summoned a whole new generation to Washington -- and dumped some of them into Vietnam. Anticipating Don Rumsfeld, Kennedy's military was going to be different -- bold and dashing, sort of like him, and innovatively lethal.

It turned out, though, that nothing had changed. America had bitten off too much. And in the end, it was the same old story. An insurgency had enough support to make the war too costly for us. The goals did not match the rhetoric.

Now it has happened again. In Iraq, the front is everywhere. Insurgents move among the people with relative ease. Washington spouts meaningless statistics (120,000 trained Iraqi soldiers) which may or may not be true but do not seem to matter. It's not that the war is lost; it's that its aims have been. Somehow Bush's trumpet summoned us to . . . what? A Shiite electoral victory that the Sunnis can support? A kazoo would have sufficed.

JFK's speech has it all over Bush's. The phrases still sing: "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship"; "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." They are now part of our cultural Bartlett's, in there with the phrases of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and, yes, Reagan. But while they stir, they also admonish. Men on rhetorical horseback beckon us all to charge.

Ask not? No, ask why.


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