Washington — Contrary to the conventional wisdom roaring through the media with growing intensity in the days before this year’s State of the Union Speech, the annual presidential oration before both houses of Congress and much of Official Washington is not a crucial event. That is to say, it is not a crucial event unless the president commits a dreadful blunder. For instance he might mispronounce the name of the President of France, calling him Jacques Shirk. Or he might mistakenly refer to one of our allies as an enemy, say, Germany. Otherwise the president hopes that the chattering classes respond with their usual unctuous condescension and perhaps lift one of his lines for learned appraisal, for instance: “the era of big government is over.” Hesto presto, the line lives for years to come, as something a president said in a State of the Union speech or, as in this reference to “big government,” something a president lied about.
The oratorical merit of a State of the Union speech is usually the first thing the commentators pronounce on, always to my amusement. After all, how would the commentators know a great speech? Why would a great speech matter? Ours is not a political system that puts much stock in great speakers. In fact many of those esteemed by the pundits to be great speakers are simply hams and occasionally only semi-literate at that, for instance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who at his best engages in children’s rhymes raving about going from “the outhouse to the White House,” or “Down with dope! Up with hope!” And then there was his historic mantra “You are not a man because you can make a baby! It takes a man to raise one!” History is a cruel chronicle.
Moreover the State of the Union speech is not really meant to be an act of leadership so much as an act of psychotherapy. It is meant to soothe every neurotic on the national stage. Tuesday night it was the war neurotics, the economy neurotics, the health-care neurotics, the race neurotics. It is also meant to render harmless the insentient mountebanks who cleverly stir the neurotics up. Tuesday night it was the Democratic leadership and the party’s left, which I suppose is one and the same.
So how did the nation’s Psychoanalyst in Chief do? Well, he did not bother with the neurotics or those who keep them in a state of lather. He addressed the major threats to the nation: a feeble economic recovery and international terrorism, led as he seems to believe by the likes of Saddam Hussein. Yes, he began with a balanced discourse on domestic needs. Schools were mentioned first. Then came homeland security. Then he switched back to tax relief. He expatiated over his domestic program, tax cuts, economic growth, high-quality “affordable health care for all Americans.” That is to come first before “bureaucrats, trial lawyers, and HMOs” and on behalf of “patients and doctors.” He spoke of energy independence. He spoke out against partial birth abortion — and while all Republicans appeared to stand up and applaud I saw no Democrat in a vertical position.
But then he surprised Official Washington. He did what the local savants said he would not do. He addressed the looming war in Iraq and from all I can tell he made it clear that Saddam Hussein is in need of a bomb shelter. “We have the terrorists on the run and one by one the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.” After that he made it pretty clear that he considers Hussein a terrorist. “Perseverance is power,” the steely-eyed president said, and as the Democratic leadership squirmed he made it clear that he will persevere against Hussein for his derelictions of his agreements with the United Nations. Yet he added “the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.” Not even Jacques Shirk matters to America.
The forty-third president after dilating on the enormities committed by terrorists and Hussein then turned to the brutal dictator in North Korea. But he only dwelt on Kim Jong Il for a brief period, whereupon he returned to Hussein. The President rattled off the facts and some figures on Iraq’s arsenal of mass destruction. He linked Hussein to terrorists and to Al Qaeda. He spoke of the Iraqi’s penchant for torturing children in front of their parents. From all I could tell President Bush was describing a war criminal, a regime of war criminals.
This was supposed to be a speech basically aimed at domestic problems. Its thrust turned out to be Iraq’s violation of U.N. resolutions and of its status as an outlaw nation. It contained no appeal to Iraq to mend its ways. Its point was that Iraq lied to the world, committed ghastly acts and now faces war. My guess is that next week Secretary of State Colin Powell is going to tell us some of the horrible truths that this Administration now knows about the Iraqis’ weapons of mass destruction. He might even reveal that the French and the Germans have compromised themselves badly in dealing with Iraq over the past decade. This president did not blunder last Tuesday night. He faced his responsibilities, and Hussein is going to pay. Maybe, too, the French and the Germans are going to look very bad.