You always hope a State of the Union address will be a sleek and handsome ocean liner cutting through the sea. Often they start that way and then turn, inevitably, into a greasy old barge riding low in the water, weighed down by policy cargo. It blows its horn proudly but the sound is more impressive than the ship; in fact it highlights the ship’s inadequacy.
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George W. Bush’s State of the Union the other night flipped expectations and broke rules. It began as a barge and turned into a ship of state. Suddenly you realized its early slowness was in fact a stateliness, not a flaw but part of a design. It built. It didn’t blast its horn and yet as it moved forward you couldn’t stop listening.
It was the speech of a practical idealist, practical in that it dealt directly with crucial and immediate challenges and addressed them within a context of what is possible, and idealistic in that it applied the great American abstractions—freedom, justice, independence—to those challenges. The speech was held together by a theme of protectiveness. We must now more than ever, and for all the current crisis, continue as a uniquely protective people. We must protect the vulnerable and troubled—the young with parents in prison, the old with high prescription costs, workers battered by taxes, victims of late-term abortions, a continent dying of AIDS. In foreign policy we must protect ourselves and the world from those who would harm us with massive, evil weapons.
The theme held both halves of the speech together, and so they cohered and supported each other. The two halves were defined, too, by a change of tone or demeanor on the president’s part that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. In the first, domestic part of the speech he was serious and contained, but in the second part of the speech, on Iraq, there was a shift. His voice seemed lower and there seemed a kind of full head-heart engagement in his grave but optimistic message. For a moment I though of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big “S” on his chest. But it wasn’t quite like that because it wasn’t theatrical. The speech was unrelentingly serious, and assumed a seriousness in its audience. It assumed also a high degree of personal compassion and courage on the part of those watching. And so it was subtly rousing without being breast-beating, flag-waving or cheap. It was something.
In a pre-speech meeting with reporters on Tuesday, a high administration official with intimate knowledge of the president’s thinking said that the president did not intend for the speech to be the last word on Iraq. There will be meetings with allies, statements and presentations, and they will most likely culminate in a big and final presidential address.
The State of the Union was intended to persuade and add more data, which the president did. He revisited Saddam Hussein’s attempts to create and obtain weapons of mass destruction, and referred to his ties with al Qaeda. He met Democrats’ insistence that he prove that a Saddam move is “imminent” with the observation that terrorists don’t send handwritten notes announcing they’re about to visit. He added to the case against Iraq in a way that seemed compelling: He was talking to mom and pop at the kitchen table and telling them that men with histories and characters like Saddam’s don’t get their hands on weapons of mass destruction to do anything with them but hit their enemies—that is, us—hard. He finished with a vow: We will “disarm” Saddam if he will not disarm himself. Mr. Bush did not hold out hope on that score, asserting that trusting Saddam “is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”
It is hard to know how many Americans are still open to persuasion on the subject of an invasion. It is tough to know how hardened positions are. The new information Mr. Bush offered seemed both believable and incomplete. The high White House official in the pre-speech interview made it clear that he wants to release more classified data on Saddam, and seemed to suggest the data will inform parts of a future Colin Powell appearance before the Security Council.
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Mr. Bush’s language was interesting. It was Elevated Bushian—plain and pared of personal emotionalism. “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.” “The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.” “If this is not evil then evil has no meaning.”
People talk about “great lines” in speeches, but this speech was distinguished in that it didn’t highlight them—it didn’t toot its horn. When leaders speak these days a big problem with their rhetoric is that the great lines—the soundbites—sound like something sprinkled in artificially. They almost jump up and announce themselves—Main soundbite coming! Runs 14 seconds. Incue: “My fellow Americans . . . “ This doesn’t impress people very much because Americans are sophisticated. They don’t say, “I love what he just said,” they say, “That was the big soundbite.”
Mr. Bush’s speech was a departure in this regard. It didn’t have “good lines,” it had thoughts. The thoughts were pithily, and sometimes memorably, expressed. They didn’t seem artificially sprinkled in. They arose from the text, were woven into it, and organic to it. And so they didn’t seem showy and insubstantial, they seemed like real thoughts that had a particular weight. This is oratory of the post-soundbite era, and it’s a step forward.
I felt at the end of the speech not roused but moved, and it took me a while to figure out why. It was gratitude.
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This, truly, is a good man. And that is a rare thing. Agree with Mr. Bush’s stands or disagree, there can be no doubting the depth of his seriousness and the degree to which he attempts to do what he is convinced is right, and to lead his country toward that vision of rightness. We have had many unusual men as president and some seemed like a gift and some didn’t. Mr. Bush seems uniquely resolved to be as courageous as the times require and as helpful as they allow. There is a profound authenticity to him, and a fearlessness too.
A steady hand on the helm in high seas, a knowledge of where we must go and why, a resolve to achieve safe harbor. More and more this presidency is feeling like a gift.