January 25, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     The capital is still buzzing about President Bush's 
inaugural address. Liberals tend to deem it empty, 
overreaching, extravagant in its promise to end tyranny 
all over the world. Conservatives have found it 
inspiring, "intellectually rich," even "revolutionary."

     Since when is "revolutionary" a conservative 
compliment? Modern conservatism is usually dated from 
(1791), a profoundly anti-revolutionary book that warned 
against an imprudent disdain for tradition. Burke 
presciently argued that France's hot pursuit of "the 
abstract rights of man" could lead only to violence and, 
finally, tyranny, probably under some strongman. He wrote 
this years before the world had heard of Napoleon 

     France had just undergone a self-inflicted regime 
change, and after a year of observation from across the 
English Channel Burke found himself "alarmed into 
reflection" on the bloody events in Paris. He set down 
his thoughts in some of the most beautiful English prose 
ever written, a model for all future conservatives.

     Burke stressed such principles as prudence, 
tradition, and a sense of limits, as opposed to utopian 
hopes for perfect political arrangements on earth. 
Political wisdom begins with the realization that man is 
a fallen creature whose passions need to be checked, not 
inflamed. Until recently, nearly all professed 
conservatives would have agreed.

     But today the new conservative consensus seems to be 
that Burke's principles are applicable when Democrats are 
in power but may be set aside when Republicans rule. 
Conservatives, in just a few years, have been transformed 
into utopians.

     Many pundits have noted that Bush's speech sounds 
very much like John Kennedy's inaugural address. No doubt 
this was intentional. It sounded so elevated in 1961: 
America would pay any price, bear any burden, in the 
world struggle for freedom.

     Bush was straining for the same effect. America's 
freedom depends on freedom everywhere. We will eliminate 
tyranny, everywhere, forever and ever! And just how do we 
do that? By expanding the War on Terror into a War on 
Tyranny? And once we uproot it, is there any chance it 
will someday grow back?

     Jumpy White House officials rushed to clarify the 
speech's meaning; the rhetoric had gotten alarmingly out 
of control. Did this mean that allies of the United 
States will henceforth have to be democratic? Or else?

     Don't take it too seriously, these officials 
cautioned. This carefully honed message, in preparation 
for weeks, composed by professional speechwriters, 
scrutinized by dozens, including the president, didn't 
speak for itself. It needed a gloss. Sure, it meant 
universal liberty. But not all at once.

     What happened? Did someone in the White House 
suddenly remember his Burke, maybe from his college days? 
We may never know. What we do know is that a mild panic 
seized the White House as it sank in that people were 
taking the president at his word. This possibility 
apparently hadn't occurred to the people around the 

     That is understandable. An inauguration is a time 
for festivities. The inaugural address itself is just one 
of the rituals: The president is supposed to make 
idealistic JFK-type declarations about freedom and 
resolve that nobody takes very literally.

     But in Bush's case, you never know. He may mean 
every word of it, to judge by his policies. A global 
crusade for democracy is not out of the question.

     Or maybe he was just looking for a quick bump in the 
polls, as when, a couple of years ago, he came up with 
the idea of sending a man to Mars. That didn't seize the 
public imagination as hoped, so we've heard no more of 

     What is clear, though, is that Bush is pretty nearly 
the diametric opposite of a Burkean conservative. Modern 
conservatives like Robert Taft, Russell Kirk, and Michael 
Oakeshott wouldn't recognize him as one of their own. His 
zeal for utopian language and utopian projects marks him 
as an alien to the breed. He shares the Napoleonic 
ambition to impose a new international order.

     And other self-described conservatives are following 
him in this, as if conservatism were a mere appendage of 
the Republican Party, rather than a body of standards by 
which all parties must be judged. And what principles 
will they be living by next year? That seems to be up to 


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