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January 29, 2008
The Global Gettysburg
President Bush's State of the Union speech signaled an important first step in the establishment of his legacy. In many respects, the speech reflected a transformation in the American Presidency from domestic protector to global idealist. Such flashes have consistently been apparent in previous Presidents, but President Bush gave considerable time and attention to international affairs and explanations about why such matters pertain to our present State of the Union.
President Bush finds himself at a global Gettysburg. The world is struggling to embrace democratic freedom, and the President is struggling to lead a divided world against forces of intimidating fear. Bush's second inaugural address in 2005 gave stark focus to the issue-- making it a centerpiece to his second term. In that speech he explained:
"We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies."
The theme found further amplification Monday night.
Despite this idealism, President Bush finds himself besieged by American partisans-- conservative nativists who feel betrayed on the issue of illegal immigration and liberal jingoists who feel American lives are not worth sectarian annihilations. The President's low approval rating is contrasted by the Russian hero chosen as Time's Man of the Year--a leaders that does not blanche at polonium poisoning while his harsh undemocratic behavior earns rave reviews at home and, apparently, abroad.
President Bush's predicament is confounding. His antagonists in the Congress find themselves suffering even lower approval ratings while the international scene suggests that he is winning the popularity contest-- despite Governor Sebelius' feeble rebuttal following the State of Union message. The domestic populations of Germany, Australia, France, Canada and South Korea have all rejected anti-Bush leaders and put in rather strong American allies. Only Spain seems to have electorally bowed to the will of terrorists who demanded they withdraw from Iraq or face further violence.
Lincoln's rhetorical performance at Gettysburg was at the time equivocal. The New York Times said the speech was interrupted by applause five times. Chicago papers said the speech was a national embarrassment. Lincoln himself was initially disappointed with the performance. Today, pundits attempt to foist a similar equivocation on President Bush. Despite these criticisms, President Bush's elaboration on the theme "we the people" has a profound parallel to Lincoln's still haunting conclusion at Gettysburg:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication at Miami University, specializing in argumentation and rhetoric studies.