By Wlady Pleszczynski on 1.21.04 @ 1:14AM
What’s a State of the Union without a lead-in by Peter Jennings? ABC News called its two-hour public service coverage last night “The State of the Union and the Democratic Response,” perhaps its most transparent effort yet to diminish the natural edge that goes to a Republican president on the occasion of his annual big speech. Peter otherwise bit his tongue, perhaps too hard, because at one point he referred to John Kerry as “Secretary Kerry,” and for the life of him he couldn’t come up with Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson’s name.
Peter remarked that Commerce Secretary Don Evans was the one cabinet member who stayed away, in case something untoward happened to the rest of the executive branch’s leaders. The anti-Bush conspiracists might see that as a sure sign of malign intentions — an effort to ensure Bush continuity in the person of the president’s campaign 2000 finance chairman and longtime close friend. Peter of course hasn’t gone that far. He was happy to let Linda Douglass insist that Congress is a house divided and that nothing Bush proposes will likely pass this year. “Gridlock” wasn’t a word she used. It’s reserved for when Republicans are the alleged obstructionists.
Unable to interrupt the president during his speech, Peter’s network decided instead to focus twice on Senator Kennedy, who most disapprovingly smirked in reaction to Bush’s remarks on the Medicare reform bill and the runup to war with Saddam. For fairness and balance, we saw Hillary once or twice playing the New Democrat and standing in support of the president regarding our forces in Iraq. This year she smiled and didn’t roll her eyes or feign a yawn.
When finally Peter’s people were able to turn to the high point of their evening, the Democratic response, it was a bit of a shock to see Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Daschle coming at us from a background similar to one found on any community access channel on your cable system. I was half expecting them to speak to us about the latest meeting of my country school board. Pelosi may have started out sounding like a Kerry-Edwardsite, but she ended her evening spouting like a Deaniac, denouncing Halliburton and Bush war-mongering. Daschle, meanwhile, made it clear he’s working very hard to get re-elected to the Senate, noting how he’s been visiting every hamlet in his empty state. He has his priorities in order. Look for squawking from Democrats already unhappy with his all but resigned style of minority leadership.
Having suffered beyond the call of duty, I switched channels. Regular Fox was giving time to former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldam. That seemed odd. No Brit, Fred or Mort on this channel. They were only on Fox News. What’s going on? Fox News is the deal, yet it’s not showcased on the Big Channel?
Brit asked Sen. John Breaux about Howard Dean. Breaux couldn’t have been blunter. He might as well have replied, “Howie Who?”
Fred had little to say about the president’s speech, other than to note it wasn’t as good as Bush’s previous SOTU addresses. He also noted that John Kerry, in his statement, got the number of years Bush has been in office wrong. Only three, John, not four.
From the scattered comments I picked up on last night, I detected no consensus at all. Some thought Bush political, others said not so. Others thought him forceful, other said he held back. Maybe Senator Breaux captured the one problem, if that’s what it was: he wondered what happened to the expected mention of Mars?
The speech was really a foreign policy address. At least half of Bush’s time was devoted to the War on Terror and Iraq, as if he had to re-establish the context that had been obvious to all in his previous two addresses. Whatever he said about aspects of domestic policy in the second part of his remarks was by contrast brief if not cursory, as if on the premise that less is more.
And it just might be. Unlike previous occasions where Bush needed to soar rhetorically or felt he did, last night’s was maybe his most straightforward and confidently delivered speech yet. He spoke at a good clip, with easy command and not a sign of shakiness or even concern. He’s a political natural and he likes to compete. Recall the moment when he noted that the PATRIOT Act is expiring and Congress needs to renew it. Some Democrats cheered the thought of its demise. But Bush was ready. “The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule,” he responded. You could sense the pleasure it gave him to stick it to the opposition.
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.
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