Doing Freedom's Work

January 31, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. The state of the union is, in a word, peculiar. The nation is in a recession and a war simultaneously. Probably neither problem will persist for long; certainly neither ranks at the top of the list of America's gravest problems.

What are those problems? President George Bush spoke for about 50 minutes Tuesday night without doing them justice. What he did say is itself one of the serious problems.

Calling the chore of containing Iraq a ''defining hour'' for the nation, the president proceeded to define the nation's essential nature this way: ''For two centuries we have done the hard work of freedom.'' Indeed we have, but not by great military undertakings.

In 1778, the infant Republic entered into a military alliance with France. The next military treaty the United States entered into was the NATO pact in 1949. But the ''hard work of freedom'' this TC nation has done has been primarily, indeed overwhelmingly, civilian, not military. It has been the work of making America's civil society excellent and an elicitor of excellence.

How are we doing today? Here is a hint. Robert Kuttner, the economics writer, notes that since America began in the 1970s developing the high-technology weapons that are now earning plaudits far away -- the Patriot and Tomahawk missiles -- American manufacturers' share of the world consumer electronics market has shrunk from 70 percent to 5 percent.

The energies of a nation such as ours, which has borne the military burdens of the Cold War, are finite. Such a nation has urgent priorities, and important competing interests get neglected. Americans suffused with the triumphalism of today's military successes say: A superpower excels at the production of Patriots and Tomahawks, not cars and VCRs. But a superpower that expects to stay such, and wants to be a commodious place in the bargain, had better be able to do both, and more.

It must have successful schools to which children come -- children from functional families, walking to school down streets free from gunfire. Providing such schools, sustaining such families and policing such streets -- call that the hard work of freedom.

There is an anachronism, a faint echo of problems long since surmounted, in the title of the report -- ''The State of the Union'' -- that the Constitution requires the president to make to Congress. The word ''union'' has virtually vanished from American political usage.

Retiring the word ''union'' was a presidential policy between 1861 and 1863. In his history of the Civil War, James M. McPherson of Princeton notes that as the war proceeded -- the war that began breaking the states to the saddle of the central government -- the word ''union'' was supplanted by the word ''nation'' in Lincoln's rhetoric.

In his first message to Congress (July 4, 1861), Lincoln used ''union'' 32 times, ''nation'' three times. By the time of the Gettysburg Address (Nov. 19, 1863), he used ''union'' not at all, ''nation'' five times. In perhaps his greatest speech, his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865), he said that the war had begun because one side had sought to dissolve the ''union'' and the other side had fought to preserve the ''nation.''

The nation, meaning its domestic conditions and its sense of collective effort for improvement as a single community, received scant attention from the president Tuesday night. His tone was perfunctory -- even the timber of his voice diminished -- when he turned to domestic matters.

Are Democrats seriously dissatisfied with Mr. Bush's definition of America's role, or the allocation of America's energies? Not so you would notice.

Usually when a president delivers the third State of the Union address of a term, the sea of politicians spread in front of him is quivering from the pent-up energies of those who are determined to take his place. But Tuesday night, that sea was becalmed by war.

Regarding presidential politics among Democrats, Roll Call Newspaper, the microscope beneath which Capitol Hill lives, has been reduced to reporting what it calls ''mighty thin gruel for a speculative feast'': the fact that Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent a passel of Christmas cards to folks in New Hampshire. Such a dearth of news at this point in the presidential cycle is peculiar.

But, you may ask, is it not welcome? Perhaps. But being an energetic opposition, articulating alternatives -- that, too, is part of the hard work of freedom. And it, too, is work not being done.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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