The president’s State of the Union Address is Tuesday night, and right now his speechwriters are likely still caught in staffing hell, receiving last-minute suggested changes from agencies and offices throughout the government. The speech is probably frozen—writers have been working on it since before Christmas, and this is an orderly White House—but in the days before a big speech, everyone works out his unfocused anxiety through last-minute tinkering.
Someone at just about this moment is suggesting changing the opening—“My fellow Americans”—to “Fellow citizens.” And someone else is penciling in “My brothers and sisters.” Down the hall someone is writing, “Why don’t we make it new, edgy—how about ‘Hey Dawg?’ “ Somewhere a speechwriter is screaming.
The small things are overthought. The big things are underthought. This is the way of government.
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An administration official told me he’d just had the busiest week of his life—meetings and meetings to schedule meetings and decisions. Landon Parvin, the eloquent and elegant veteran of the last three Republican White Houses, reminded me that the speech forces policy decisions to be made. “Remember how we couldn’t write things because the decisions hadn’t been made yet? Here we were running around trying to put a speech together, meanwhile the policy wonks elsewhere were running around trying to put a policy together.”
I asked the administration official how the speech looks. He said he’d only seen part of it, that each agency now receives for review only the section of the speech that is pertinent to it. This surprised me. In the Reagan White House, the whole speech was sent out to the agencies. This caused problems of its own—a poet at Treasury might accidentally rewrite American foreign policy—but it allowed the speech to emerge with a certain definable character.
The change suggested two things. One is that the new way might account for the increased choppiness of such addresses over the years. It’s hard to maintain a flow if each section bears different marks. The other is that the administration must be very anxious about leaks, worried that the guy in the Office of Management and Budget will leak the foreign-affairs section or the guy in Commerce will leak the references to immigration. It’s difficult to run a government when you have to operate with such anxiety.
State of the Union speeches run long—they announce an administration’s plans and proposals for the coming year, and that takes time—and by nature they have a lot of boring parts. It’s not a straight arrow of a speech with a theme and a destination, but something that pongs and bounces for 50 minutes. I continue to think the White House should issue two States of the Union simultaneously. The first would be a lengthy written document containing all plans and proposals for each agency, and a review of where we are. The second would be the address, a thematic speech devoted to the great and pressing issue of the day. Just having a White House decide what the issue is would be illuminating. In 1962, for instance, John F. Kennedy might likely have spoken either of the struggle with Soviet communism or of the rise of the American civil-rights movement. Whichever he chose, and how he spoke of it, would say worlds about where we were going and who he was. History would respect it, as opposed to wading through it. And normal people would listen.
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The big thing I’d like to hear the president say this year? There are areas toward which he can point with pride, most especially the still not fully recognized triumph of the U.S. economy, a jobs-making, wealth-making dynamo. That it is so strong, so high, five years after 9/11 is amazing, and moving, too: A lot of individual toil went into that. How did it happen, what cultural implications does it hold, what are we doing wrong, what will strengthen growth, what will undermine it? Serious and textured thoughts are, here, overdue.
But there is no denying that Iraq is, still, subject No. 1. In connection with that, I wish the president would take time to acknowledge and think aloud about the bitterness that has come to surround the entire postinvasion American polity. The feeling of mutual sympathy that swept America’s political class in the days after 9/11 has dissipated, if not disappeared. And this is true not only in government but in newspapers, on the Internet, in the culture.
It’s been an era of soft thinking and hard words. Those who opposed the war were weak and craven; those who supported it were dupes and bullies; those who came to oppose the war were cowards bowing to polls; those who continue to support it love all war all the time. Some of this was inevitable—the stakes could barely be higher; passions flare. But it’s not getting us anywhere. And it’s limiting debate. It’s making people fearful.
It is time for a kind of verbal amnesty in which thoughts are considered before motives are judged. An admission that the White House is as responsible for this situation as everyone else would help clear the air—and just might prompt some soul-searching in members of the audience. An honest plea here could break through the cement that has hardened over the debate. Who could answer harshly when a president who loves his country admitted the problem and pleaded for change? That’s what might really hit reset.
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Connected to that, a small thought. Part of the reason the air is so charged now, so highly emotional, is that many of the leaders in the drama seem, lately, to be re-enacting. One senses a number of antiwar politicians are thinking: This is my Bobby Kennedy moment. We are re-enacting 1968. See how I jab the air as I speak against war. On the other side it is 1939, and they are Churchill. See the bulldog gaze and hear the repetition of rhetoric that even then was on occasion overripe. (I know—sometimes overripe fruit has the sharpest taste and smell. And at least you know it’s in the kitchen.)
All this re-enacting is understandable—we are human, imaginative, damaged. But however legitimate it feels or is, it also further charges the atmosphere. And the atmosphere is charged enough. The great struggle of life is that you are you and this is now. The inspiration of that is that you’re not just remembering history, you’re making it. It’s a blank page. You can fill it with good things.