I watched the inaugural address from the crowded and noisy balcony of the canteen at a local ski area. There was some applause, though less than I expected. There is, however, probably some sampling bias at work, considering that each and every person in the room could easily have been on the Mall but deliberately chose to ski instead.
I liked the speech very much, partly because its sobriety matched the seriousness of our problems, but perhaps more because of its repeated reliance on the broad sweep of U.S. history. While some pundits have seemed unable to find any common theme in the speech, it seems to me the theme was encapsulated in the call for us to “choose our better history.” Great traditions carry within them the seeds of their own improvement, and the political tradition of the United States is great in precisely this way. This holds true not just for our national conception of political equality, but for our national conception of human rights and, yes, even economic liberty.
After everything I have written here about our national security policy, no regular reader will be surprised to learn that I loved the following lines:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.
Our political tradition is liberal at its very core, and anyone who claims to be conservative while treating civil liberties and human rights as negotiable luxuries is a phony.
But my favorite part of the speech was closer to the end, when this same basic insight was given more general application:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
These things are old; these things are true; we must return to them. Just as the best conservatives are liberal, the best liberals are conservative. Today, President Obama showed that he understands this.
I expect to disagree quite a bit with President Obama, particularly in the area of economic policy. But as long as he continues to celebrate and draw guidance from the best elements of our political traditions, I will often find myself cheering him, as I did today.