A million things can be said, and are being said, about President Bush’s State of the Union address last night. But a few things stand out: One major address from this president, and all the Democratic fog built up in recent weeks immediately dissipated. After Tuesday night, the Pelosi-Daschles are going to have to find themselves a stronger fog-making machine. The one they’ve been using is deader than an empty can of aerosol spray.
That goes for Peter Jennings as well, the only anchor I watched last night, not only because he’s been leading the media charge against Bush but also because of his recent eagerness to play the role of Bonior-McDermott-Penn in Baghdad. Editorializing on no basis save his own uncontained prejudices, Peter before the speech decided to give his own abbreviated version by announcing that “the state of the union is uncertain,” that “most people” agree with his various views, that the U.S. finds itself in the “most weakened position since 9/11” and that President Bush is “still very popular” — the “still” reflecting a certainty that Bush’s popularity can’t last and won’t be allowed to.
Afterward, such carping seemed as puny as the Democrats’ official response from Washington state’s answer to Michael Dukakis. No less diminished was the distinguished panel of ABC regulars Jennings had mobilized. Under his guidance they had all the stature of a focus group. To her credit, Michel Martin was able to slip in that Bush gave a “commanding” performance.
Indeed, that sums it up. Bush was in full command no less than on September 20, 2001, but in certain ways even more impressively because he didn’t need to be spectacular. This time there was no sense at all that he was giving the speech of his life, or having to resort to the bombast of last year’s State of the Union. Instead what you saw is the leader of the free world easily filling that role that’s become his destiny. He dominated this congressional gathering no less than he did his United Nations audience last fall.
It’s gotten to the point that the text of his remarks seems flat until you hear Bush delivering the actual words: words that score rhetorically above all because they are politically assertive and shrewd. Bush is that most unusual of Republicans who understands that political presence is nothing without projection and demonstration of clout. That means he controls the terms of debate.
Consider just a few examples. The conventional wisdom going into last night was that Bush would have to acknowledge that the state of the union is shaky, the implication being that a shaky union means a shaky Bush presidency. Good luck. In his first paragraphs he did just the opposite, conceptualizing in a way that could only make his leadership shine, as he called attention to his and Congress’s serving “in a time of great consequence”:
“In all these days of promise and days of reckoning, we can be confident. In a whirlwind of change and hope and peril, our faith is sure, our resolve is firm, and our union is strong.
“This country has many challenges. We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations. We will confront them with focus, and clarity and courage.”
No uncertainty here, just a selfless sense of duty, generosity, and love of country.
To drive the point home, he followed immediately with this shot across the Democrats’ bow: “During the last two years, we have seen what can be accomplished when we work together….” Then he proceeded to take credit for a number of politically useful initiatives, after which he added memorably: “Some might call this a good record. I call it a good start.”
This president, in other words, is going to be around. And that was before he again insisted on speeding up his tax cuts, or outlawing partial birth abortion, or going ahead with ballistic missile defense — all of which were reacted to by standing ovations from Republicans while Democrats disappeared under their seats, McGoverniks to the bitter end.
To cite one other example of Bush’s ability to mix statesmanship with political deftness, there was his moving and unassailable call to provide serious help to the victims of AIDS in Africa. Woe to Bush if this effort comes to naught. From all indications this part of his speech caught observers by surprise. Again all those who make a living underestimating Bush will have a lot of catching up to do. Meanwhile, one can imagine Bush’s predecessor throwing a major tantrum — hadn’t Bill Clinton announced he was going to devote the rest of his life to helping victims of AIDS in Africa? Seems he got distracted on that score, and now he’s been preempted. Then, too, Democrats thought they would forever connect Bush to Trent Lott, yet there was Bush, winning the applause of a major AIDS fighter from Uganda who attended the speech as one of his honored guests.
Tony Snow commented on how quiet the House gallery became as Bush laid out specifics about Saddam Hussein. Perhaps by then Bush’s remarks were more than the Democratic side and Peter Jennings could bear to hear. If there’s hope for them it’s in knowing that the State of the Union comes but once a year.
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