Ancient Rome's greatest historian was Titus Livius, known to us as Livy (59 BC-17 AD). In the Second Book of his monumental history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City), he tells the famous story of Horatio at the Bridge.
In 510 BC, Rome was threatened with destruction from an invading army of Etruscans. All Romans living in the countryside had abandoned their homes and fled for protection inside the city. The city walls were heavily garrisoned, but the most vulnerable point was a wooden bridge, the Pons Sublicius, across the river Tiber and into Rome.
When Etruscan forces focused their attack on the bridge, the Roman troops guarding it fled in fear – save for one man, a soldier named Horatius, whom we call Horatio.
"Proudly," says Livy, and all alone, "Horatius took his stand at the outer end of the bridge; conscious amongst the rout of fugitives, sword and shield ready for action, he prepared himself for close combat, one man against an army. The advancing enemy paused in sheer astonishment at such reckless courage."
Horatio bellowed to his fleeing comrades that they burn and chop down the bridge while he fought the Etruscans off. Livy continues:
With defiance in his eyes he confronted the Etruscan chivalry, challenging one after another to single combat, and mocking them all as tyrants' slaves who, careless of their own liberty, were coming to destroy the liberty of others. For a while they hung back, each waiting for his neighbor to make the first move, until shame at the unequal battle drove them to action, and with a fierce cry they hurled their spears at the solitary figure which barred their way. Horatius caught the missiles on his shield and, resolute as ever, straddled the bridge and held his ground.
When the bridge finally collapsed, Horatio fell into the Tiber and was able to swim to safety. The citizens of Rome bestowed upon him every possible honor.
This happened in Rome's youth. What if it had happened in Rome's prime, with its citizens so prosperous they were cynical and spoiled? What if they despised Horatio's solitary heroism, and their leaders and intellectual elite pined for Rome's defeat instead? What if the Roman people hated Horatio for his attempt to save them, rather than honoring him?
For that is the question I had watching the President's State of the Union speech last night. Listening to him, I thought of Horatio at the bridge.
Despite all else upon which we may disagree with him, what blindingly came through last night was that this is a noble man, a heroic man, standing alone against America's enemies and viciously ridiculed and reviled for it. Yet he stands there with graciousness and courtesy, as a gentleman.
He stood there alone and spoke eloquently to a Congress, to a nation, of spoiled brats.
The day of the speech (1/23), a Washington Post/ABC News poll announced that 52% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of terrorism, when we have not suffered a single terrorist attack in the over five years since 9/11 – and that 57% disapprove of his handling of the economy.
That means that 57% of Americans are clinically deranged. On every measure – the stock markets, corporate profits, employment, inflation, spendable income, take your pick – the US economy is doing astoundingly well. How can people possibly disapprove? Yet they do. Because they are spoiled brats.
There's an old saw that says in a democracy, voters get the leaders they deserve. Bush disproves it – for in him, voters are getting better than they deserve. If they got what they deserved, they'd get Hillary Clinton, and may very well in 2008.
But like Ronald Reagan, Bush's faith in the goodness of Americans has never wavered. Today, I talked with Tony Snow, the president's spokesman, and he explained why:
The most important word the president used in his speech last night was victory. Unlike some members of Congress, those who sat on their hands at the mention of it, Americans want victory. So we are going to give it to them.
This is no time to feel desperate. What we need is a sense of mission, a purposeful dynamism. General Petraeus will be giving regular briefings from now on, and be issuing a progress report on Iraq every two weeks. He'll report on what progress we are having on de-Baathification, disarming the Shia militias, on taking the fight to the bad guys in a very methodical way.
To lose this war is to lose our soul. The soul of our country, the soul of America. If we lose in Iraq, the terrorists will be here, the war will be here and among us. But we are not going to lose. We still have an enormously strong hand to play and we are going to play it.
Conservatives need to understand that our best days are still in front of us, if we proceed with confidence and principle. Ours is an ideology of freedom, and an ideology of freedom is an ideology of joy. Joy and freedom will triumph over fear and cynicism.
Watching Bush last night and talking to Tony today inspired me to believe that this president just may drag Americans back into adulthood once again. A nation that hates its Horatios is already in grave danger of losing its soul. GW's determination to succeed in Iraq may enable our nation to regain it.