The Breakfast Table

A Declaration of War

Dear Walter, Chris,

I’ve written quite a few analyses of State of the Union addresses in the past few years, but never of one that doubles as a declaration of war. The usual tricks fail me. It’s far more comfortable writing about some of the odder characters in the chamber, like our peace-of-mind czar Tom Ridge, who last night looked like a 1920s gangster out of a Coen brothers’ movie, or Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who was captured wearing a look of such raised-eyebrow bemusement while applauding a line about the defeat of Communism that if this were a Private Eye cover, the thought-bubble over her head would have read, “Why the hell am I clapping for the defeat of Communism?”

Also comfortable is condescending analysis of how chief executives go applause-fishing. Bush really likes to bang you over the head, using parallelisms (“our faith is sure, our resolve is firm, and our union is strong”) and slowing down his already slow delivery so that each word comes out like a pulse beat. (“The war goes on. And we. Are. Winning.”)

Whether they’re subtle or ham-handed, applause lines demand snap judgments from congressmen of the nonpresidential party, who must navigate between the Scylla of lèse-président and the Charybdis of treason to the party. Under Clinton, the Republican rule was: When in doubt, clap. Under Bush, the Democratic rule is: When in doubt, don’t. The Republicans method looks better on TV. Democrats, by just sitting on their asses, implied disagreement with some pretty popular proposals:

“… end the practice of partial birth abortion.” (Subliminal message glum-faced Democrats gave voters: But we love partial-birth abortion.)

“… field a defense to protect this nation against ballistic missiles.” (Who wants to be protected against missile attacks, anyway?)

Come to think of it, the Republican clap-for-everything rule was hard-learned wisdom. It was Gingrich, if I rightly recall, who alerted GOPers that the phrase “affordable health care” was not an occasion for rolled eyes and sniggering.

Two stunners last night: the African AIDS initiative, which is generous and (particularly in wartime) strikes an appropriate note of solicitude for the welfare of poor people we don’t know. But potentially history-making was the $1.2 billion in research funding, “so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles,” along with the hope that the “first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen.” Did you see how that brought everyone to their feet? Obviously this is the thin end of the wedge—because if an alternative to oil (and oil tyrannies) cost only $1.2 billion, then it would have been undertaken by Uruguay or Greece. Either it’s palaver, or we’re in for trillions. Let’s hope it’s the latter, and that this is the Texan oil princeling’s Nixon-to-China moment. I can imagine no greater contribution to a peaceful world.

It was pleasing to see Bush walk back the cat on two big mistakes he’s made thus far in the war on terror. Even if you think “Axis of Evil” describes something real, it was an appalling (and counterproductive) insult to focus last year on Iran’s fanatical clerics while ignoring its brave dissidents. They got their mention. Another mistake, in Bush’s September 2001 speech, was to omit “communism” from the list of tyrannies the U.S. has vanquished. The reds were restored to their place of honor last night.

So was it a good speech? Depends on whether it’s a good war. More later.