State of the Union addresses are usually reviewed in terms of “eloquence,” or “drama,” or how the overnight polls register the public’s reaction. But for sheer seriousness, for the depth and scope of the information imparted, the president’s State of the Union the other night was, simply, staggering.
I’m not sure everyone fully noticed, but about five minutes into it George W. Bush laid the predicate for what will no doubt prove a costly war marked by high casualties some of which, perhaps many, will likely be civilian.
That is what he was saying when Mr. Bush asserted that North Korea has weapons of mass destruction aimed at the West, that Iraq continues to hide its WMDs, that old allies such as the Philippines are increasingly overrun by those who want the West dead, that the Mideast and Africa are the home of similar and connected terror movements. Nineteen men caused havoc on Sept. 11, he said, but the camps they were trained in have pumped out 10,000 more, “each one a ticking time bomb.”
The president was blunt in unveiling what will perhaps be known as the Bush Doctrine. And that is that the United States will no longer hope for the best in the world and respond only after being attacked; we will, instead, admit and act on the facts of the WMD era and actively search out our would-be killers wherever they are and whoever supports them and shut them down dead. The Clinton model of inadequate response based on ambivalent feeling is over; likewise the Bush I model of cat-herding coalitions and anxious diplomacy is over, though coalitions and diplomacy are nice, especially when everyone agrees to do the same thing at the same time in the same way.
This is about as big as presidential statements get. Where and when will America move next? Mr. Bush did not say. How long will it take? Ten years. Or, as he put it, this “decade” will be “decisive” in “the history of human liberty.” This was not rhetoric. In fact, the speech was blessedly free of the faux poetry that is often mistaken for eloquence. Mr. Bush’s eloquence is in his plainspokenness, in the fact that each word is a simple coin with a definite worth. The speech was fact-filled, dense and not airy. Its main point was to tell the American people we are in the fight of our lives and that we had better win, and will.
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It was not a laundry-list speech, as State of the Union addresses usually are. It was not a laundry list because we are at war, and so there are essentially only two items on the president’s list, the war and reviving the economy that, among other things, supports the war.
Mr. Bush also is not by nature given to laundry-list speeches. One senses he understands that politicians who do them are trying to obscure the fact that they don’t have a philosophy. They hope the adding up of program upon program will give the appearance of philosophy. But Mr. Bush has a philosophy. It is conservative. Freedom is the God-given and natural state of man, the government exists to protect man’s freedom, and the greatest and most reliable freedom protector in all of human history is: us.
That’s what “Let’s roll” means to him. Let’s be us.
For a man who is famously not smart Mr. Bush certainly is smart. The president seems to me these days to be operating as a person of essentially two halves. The first half is Sheer Gut—a sharp and intelligent instinct, an inner shrewdness, an ability to see the bottom line, decide priorities, and see the difference between what is desired and what is needed. The second half, as the liberal pundit Bill Schneider said on CNN after the speech, is “character.” People can tell, Mr. Schneider said, that when Mr. Bush says he’s going to do something he actually means to do it.
A great gut plus a reliable character is maybe the exact perfect mix for any president, but certainly for a wartime president.
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On non-war issues the president continued to paint himself merrily and sympathetically as a man who stands for giving the little guy the tax cuts he needs . . . for using honest faith to answer public problems . . . for a strong defense, a strong military, a pay increase for the soldiers sailors and Marines who put themselves in harm’s way so we can sleep safely at night. He put himself forward as the man who stands for winning the war and encouraging the rise in well-grounded patriotic feeling.
Mr. Bush’s opposition at the moment appears to have been reduced to agreeing with the president on just about everything and then saying, “But let’s make sure we don’t run a deficit!” Mr. Bush is talking life and death, love and honor and they’re running around talking like accountants. The Democrats of Congress seem at the moment to be acting like liberal Republicans during the Great Society, always worried about the cost of things and never the meaning. Without a message they wince; they are acting like what H.L. Mencken said of the Puritans, that they lived in constant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.
And I am not sure the coming deficit will have much traction as a political issue for the Democrats. The public by and large seems to know that (a) there’s a war on, (b) we all want whatever defense systems or weapons that can keep us alive to be bought and deployed, and we’ll worry about the cost later when we’re still alive, as opposed to dead, and (c) oh heck, Ronald Reagan said we’d grow our way out of the last deficit and we did, let it go.
I quoted Bill Schneider praising Mr. Bush. After his speech, the liberal historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said the president’s words were “galvanizing.” Chris Mathews compared him to Jack Kennedy. The New York Times said Mr. Bush has “soared to new heights.”
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In the old days elite opinion held that Mr. Bush was a scripted trust-fund dullard whose rise was greased by luck and birth. Those were the days. Those of us who stood with Mr. Bush then were a small and hardy band of criticized contrarians. It was fun. We had secret handshakes and everything. Now everyone’s in on the act.
It is not, in general, good for presidents to be so universally praised. Politicians are made dizzy by love. They lose their edge, their purpose, and coast. But Mr. Bush has earned this support, and in any case wartime is a good time to unify behind a president—particularly this war, particularly this president.
And it’s also true that those who once dismissed Mr. Bush and now praise him are demonstrating an honesty and high mindedness that is wonderful to behold after the sapping, sour 1990s. It really is refreshing—literally refreshing—to have a president people admire and can follow cleanly again.