The Breakfast Table

A Warm-Up to War

Dear Chris and, you too, Chris—

A slow start (with nary an F-16 to blame) on this, the morning after the night before. I feel a tad Rip Van Winkle-ish, sensing that I’ve dozed through the titanic clash of thesis and antithesis that spawns what Hegel called the synthesis and what Newsweek dubs the Conventional Wisdom. There is now an unshakable orthodoxy about last night’s speech—and I’m panicked that I don’t know what it is. I worry that my epitaph will read: “He Missed the Zeitgeist.”

From scanning the morning papers (and nervously checking for any embarrassing glitches in my own post-speech column in USA Today), I pick up the initial sentiment that the president did very well, indeed. Yet I wonder. How much deferred gratification can a modern TV audience take? During the first two-thirds of the speech, you almost expected a message to scrawl across the bottom of the screen: “Stay Tuned. He’ll Get to Iraq.” Maybe the problem with trying to turn this into a legislative-business-as-usual State of the Union was that the Bush policies themselves have been out there for months. (In retrospect, the president might have been better off politically if he had waited to unveil his updated tax-cut agenda last night.) As for Iraq, this wasn’t the speech that mattered. I know we’re not used to regarding the State of the Union as a warm-up act, but last night was merely the prelude to the oratorical assault to come. My guess is that we have two prime-time speeches awaiting us—one to make the final case for invading Iraq and the other, the Godspeed-to-our-brave-men-and-woman-in-uniform address, on the eve of war.

So, I keep coming back to the question: Exactly what did we learn last night? Nothing in Bush’s tone should have been surprising, since we discovered in the sad-eyed days after Sept. 11 that President Malaprop can project gravitas when the moment calls for it. The most glaring omission in the speech was the hemorrhaging budget deficit, which was only alluded to in a half-sentence reference to “spending discipline.” (Is there a dominatrix in Washington who offers spending discipline to senators on the Appropriations Committee?) And, yes, as Chris C. has pointed out, the biggest surprise of the evening was Bush’s belated, but apparently heart-felt, commitment of real money to battling AIDS in Africa. If the rise of Bill Frist has contributed to the president’s AIDS crusade, it’s weird to think that an infected child in Rwanda may someday get medical treatment because a tin-eared Mississippi senator named Trent Lott gushed too much at the 100th-birthday party for the 1948 segregationist candidate for president.

As for hydrogen-power cars, I can’t wait to buy the first off-the-assembly-line Hindenberg convertible. I do wish speechwriters would retire the shopworn a-child-born-today conceit that Bush used when he dreamed that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen.” Let me end with a prophesy of my own: “I see an America where a child born today will grow up in a land where no one—other than Karen Hughes—will remember a single thing about President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address.”