Revolutionary president

Posted: Jan 24, 2005 12:00 AM

"By our efforts we have lit a fire," said George W. Bush at the West Front of the Capitol, "a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corner of the world." The phrase comes from Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed," a novel about a provincial town inspired by new revolutionary ideas. After a turbulent literary evening, a fire breaks out, and one townsman says, "The fire is in the minds of men, not in the roofs of buildings." Historian James Billington, now Librarian of Congress, used the phrase as the title of his history of 19th-century revolutionaries, "Fire in the Minds of Men." Bush is routinely characterized as a conservative and castigated by political opponents as a reactionary. But in his Second Inaugural, he revealed himself to be a revolutionary.

 Four years ago, Bush talked of "shaping a balance of power that favors freedom." He said, "Through much of the last century, America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations." But Sept. 11 taught Bush that America needs to do more than shape a balance of power or let seeds blow with the wind. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," he said last week. And, bluntly, "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

 There is no concession in this to the complaints of his critics, no defensiveness about the course of events, no reference to the counsels of sophisticated nuance. He set out a breathtakingly ambitious goal: to bring democracy to the entire world. One would like to know the reaction of Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar. Or the Iranian mullahs. Or Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Or China's rulers.

 Bush is not the first president to liken liberty to fire. George Washington in 1789 said, "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered ?  deeply, ? finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt quoted Washington and went on, "If we lose that sacred fire -- if we let it be smothered with doubt and fear -- then we shall reject the destiny which Washington strove so valiantly and so triumphantly to establish." Bush chose to quote Lincoln. "The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: ?Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.'" There is a narrative here: Washington established liberty in America, Lincoln extended liberty to the slaves, Bush means to spread liberty around the world. And by force of arms when necessary.

 Bush also invoked his predecessors when he spoke about domestic policy. He referred specifically to the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill of Rights -- the achievements of the other two presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, who were re-elected in time of war. Those were laws that aided and encouraged Americans to work their way up in society and achieve independence. Bush argues that his program of "reforming great institutions" -- school accountability, Social Security investment accounts, market-based healthcare -- will similarly encourage upward mobility and, in words that echo Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, "give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear."

 Bush's goals are ambitious, and he risks failure. But so did Lincoln and Roosevelt. "There are men who believe," said Roosevelt, "that freedom is an ebbing tide." Roosevelt didn't, and Bush, echoing his words, made plain he doesn't either. "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." Fire, Billington writes in "Fire in the Mind of Men," "burns. It destroys life; but it also supports it as a source of heat, light and -- above all- -- fascination." America's revolutionary presidents have changed the nation and the world before. Will this latest revolutionary president do so again?