President George W. Bush delivered a dignified inaugural speech on Saturday. That was, in itself, a nice change from most of Bill Clinton's oratorical performances, which, lacking style, discipline, and gravity could hardly even be called speeches. The theme of Clinton's first inaugural was "forcing the spring," a gardener's term that he turned into a political philosophy: government was the great hothouse of society, getting the jump on nature by accelerating and improving its trends. Scientific management would (to mix metaphors, which never seemed to bother the ex-President) enable government to build that bridge to the 21st century.
President Bush's inaugural theme was different. For him, history is a theater for God's purposes, not man's projects. America's task is to discern and fulfill His will, not to impose our own meaning on His world. To this extent, the President's speech reconnected American politics to the older American notion of a world governed by fixed moral laws, a world of divine purposes open to human apprehension. So Bush's references to Thomas Jefferson were more than bipartisan outreach.
The new President's more specific theme was the "four c's": civility, courage, compassion, and character. These are the virtues or qualities required by "the spirit of citizenship." Thus citizenship was a fifth and overarching "c," and Bush made it clear that he intended to revive American citizenship by highlighting and renewing the moral qualities essential to it.
During the campaign, Bush emphasized "prosperity with a purpose," meaning that America's material prosperity should not be considered simply an end-in-itself but also a means to citizenship or moral excellence. Bush dropped the prosperity part because the economy is beginning to falter. But the new circumstances probably strengthen his policy argument while suggesting the limit of his moral appeals. In good conscience he may now stress that a tax cut will make citizens better off, not just better!
Two c's were rather conspicuously absent from Bush's address. He didn't mention conservatism, which is not surprising given the occasion; and he said almost nothing about the Constitution. Taken together, however, these two missing themes raise questions about the relation of citizenship to limited government. Does President Bush recognize any principled (as opposed to practical) limits on what government can do in the name of "compassion"? Thomas Jefferson certainly did. So let us pray that it is the Jeffersonian, not the Clintonian, Democrats that Bush has in mind when in coming days he invokes the spirit of bipartisanship.