Of late, the public ceremonies of my country fill me with mixed emotions. Today is Inauguration Day, and as the pale wintry sun gleams on the U.S. Capitol, and the excellent armed services band plays on the surreally high podium, my blood stirs in a way that is half-joyous, half-anxious.
Joyous because, like most Americans, including those who did not vote for Bush, I know my country to be high-minded, idealistic, brave. Yet anxious because, like countless other people around the globe, I also know America to be hubristic, self-deluding, rash. Maybe the president's speech will resolve this ambivalence?
No chance. The speech itself is not eloquent or soaring (don't touch that cliche), but it is well crafted and strains earnestly to lift off. Yet the president's delivery makes me squirm. His speaking style is no longer forced and mangled (he's come a long way), but it remains incurably tinny. No matter how hard he tries, he just can't wring the insincerity out of his voice.
Why is that? His enemies say, "It's the stupidity, stupid." But Bush isn't stupid. He's no intellectual, but he's as smart as the proverbial whip. His problem is different. Until three years ago, his success in the world derived from his skill at cheerfully deflating the seriousness of others. The English wit Sydney Smith once quipped that while others were rising by their gravity, he was sinking by his levity. For Bush it has been the other way around.
I'm not suggesting a lack of seriousness now. Along with the rest of us, Bush changed on 9/11. You don't have to take my word for it. Just rent "Journeys With George," the flawed but fascinating documentary about the 2000 Bush presidential campaign, made by Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D. California). It will show you, up close and personal, the pre-9/11 Dubya.
And what a droll, sardonic, towel-snapping fellow he was! Traveling with him was tough for the rumpled reporter types, because instead of snapping their towels at the candidate, they found themselves getting snapped at by his. The film ends at the First Inaugural of Bush the Second, and the podium was just as surreally high then as now. But everything else has changed, hasn't it? Which is why Bush's speech only intensifies my ambivalence. It contains too much dissonance of its own.