The president’s State of the Union Address will be little noted and not long remembered. There was a sense that he was talking at, not to, the country. He asserted more than he persuaded, and he chose to redeclare his beliefs rather than argue for them in any depth. If you believe, as he does, that the No. 1 priority for the American government at this point in history is to lead an international movement for political democracy, and if you believe, as he truly seems to, that political democracy is in and of itself a certain bringer of world-wide peace, than this speech was for you. If not, not. It went through a reported 30 drafts, was touched by many hands, and seemed it. Not precisely a pudding without a theme, but a thin porridge.
It was the first State of the Union Mr. Bush has given in which Congress seemed utterly pre-9/11 in terms of battle lines drawn. Exactly half the chamber repeatedly leapt to its feet to applaud this banality or that. The other half remained resolutely glued to its widely cushioned seats. It seemed a metaphor for the Democratic Party: We don’t know where to stand or what to stand for, and in fact we’re not good at standing for anything anyway, but at least we know we can’t stand Republicans.
There was only one unforgettable moment, and that was in a cutaway shot, of Hillary Clinton, who simply must do something about her face. When the president joked that two people his father loves are turning 60 this year, himself and Bill Clinton—why does he think constant references to that relationship work for him?—it was Mrs. Clinton’s job to look mildly amused, or pleasant, or relatively friendly, or nonhostile. Mrs. Clinton has two natural looks, the first being a dull and sated cynicism, the second the bright-eyed throaty chuckler who greets visiting rubes from Utica. The camera caught the first; by the time she realized she was the shot, she apparently didn’t feel she could morph into the second. This canniest of politicians still cannot fake benignity.
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Maybe she knew the habitués of the Daily Kos, and other leftwing Web sites, were watching. Conservatives are always writing about the strains and stresses within the Republican Party, and they are real. But the Democratic Party seems to be near imploding, and for that most humiliating of reasons: its meaninglessness. Republicans are at least arguing over their meaning.
The venom is bubbling on websites like Kos, where Tuesday afternoon, after the Alito vote, various leftists wrote in such comments as “F––– our democratic leaders,” “Vichy Democrats” and “F––– Mary Landrieu, I hope she drowns.” The old union lunch-pail Democrats are dead, the intellects of the Kennedy and Johnson era retired or gone, and this—I hope she drowns—seems, increasingly, to be the authentic voice of the Democratic base.
How will a sane, stable, serious Democrat get the nomination in 2008 when these are the activists to whom the appeal must be made?
Republicans have crazies. All parties do. But in the case of the Democrats—the leader of their party, after all, is the unhinged Howard Dean—the lunatics seem increasingly to be taking over the long-term health-care facility. Great parties die this way, or show that they are dying.
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On the subject of political passion Tom Shales, longtime TV critic of the Washington Post and possessor of occasional eloquence, wrote a piece this week that deserves comment. I don’t mean his State of the Union review, which began, “George Bush may or may not be the worst president since Herbert Hoover . . .” I mean his attack last Monday on “Flight 93,” the A&E television movie on that fated 9/11 flight. Mr. Shales said it was shameful that vulgar dramatizers would “exploit” the pain of those on the flight and those they left behind. Or as he put it, he had, innocent that he is, thought it “unthinkable” that “even the sleaziest producers” would “exploit any aspect of a nightmare that the nation had witnessed in horror.”
By exploit I think he means “remember.” There is nothing vulgar, low or unhelpful about remembering the particular heroism of Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick and dozens of others. Their action—they stormed the cockpit that day, forced the plane down and kept it from hitting a Washington target, presumably the Capitol or the White House—was a moment of courage and sacrifice, and we all owe them a great deal. Imagine if the particular wound the hijackers meant to inflict had been successful that day. Imagine how much worse it would have been,
Remembering the men and women of Flight 93 isn’t a self-indulgence but a duty. One senses in the Shales review the sneaky little suggestion that those who would remember, and who would tell this story (based by the way on the surviving telephone and other harrowing tapes of that flight) are in fact being political. But one suspects it is Mr. Shales who is being political. Maybe he fears those stupid Americans will get all emotional if they revisit part of the horror of that day, and go out and do something bad. Let’s not speak of it lest the rabble be roused.
What a snob.
You wonder at the intemperance of angry young lefties and then think of the example set for them by exhausted old lefties.
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Wendy Wasserstein was a gifted artist and a fine person. The two do not always go together and it’s almost a relief when you find someone in whom they do. She was warm, brilliant and witty, and her work captured a part, a piece, of our era. Word that she was dying spread before word that she was sick, and the shock of it, when her lymphoma was reported in New York a few months ago, was like hearing that Michael Kelley had died.
The tragedy was sharpened by a sense of great work unfinished, of a life not ended but interrupted. Wasserstein’s plays were beloved of liberals who lauded her as spokeswoman of a modern feminist point of view. Fair enough, but she struck me as altogether cannier and more grounded than that, and more independent too.
I had a conversation with her a few years ago in which she told me of her concern at the increasing politicization of higher education. I was struck by the depth of her concern; she had clearly spent a lot of time observing, finding out the facts, and coming to conclusions. I thought later about why I was surprised and realized I had associated her, unjustly, with Frank Rich, who approaches such issues as academic freedom with a mixture of bile and cowardice: There is no politically correct censorship, and if there is the Evangelicals did it.
Wasserstein’s work had no cruelty and little fear. Her last play, “Third,” dealt with a left-wing professor who comes to question her own assumptions, and to wonder, even, if deep in her heart she does not harbor bigotries. This was the work of someone who wasn’t stuck, wasn’t cowed, who was in fact questioning, questing. It is sad to not see what that mind would have done in the future. Rest in peace.