If George W. Bush could sing and dance to "Yankee Doodle Dandy," he probably would have last night, as part of a sentimental patriotic spectacle technically known as the State of the Union address. Bush pulled out all the stops in exploiting the success of the recent election in U.S.-occupied Iraq and had guest stars in the balcony to back him up.
On television, where the 53-minute speech was carried live by all the major networks, Bush looked alternately ebullient and determined, with little gestures of cockiness popping up now and then. He picked a bad time to grin and wink at someone in the audience, because the next topic on his agenda was AIDS research, but for the most part he showed increased command and proficiency in his speechifying. Maybe it helped that he abandoned his usual powder- or baby-blue tie for a bright red one, a red to match the stripes in the huge flag behind him in the Capitol's House chamber.
Television commentators seemed to agree that Bush looked more confident and comfortable than he usually does when in the daunting glare of the national spotlight. Bob Schieffer of CBS News said he thought this "very good speech" was "one of the best-delivered" that he'd ever seen the president give. There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, but Bush did not appear to cross it, at least in terms of style.
Broadcasting history was being made, meanwhile. Before the speech, longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather introduced Schieffer as the network's chief political correspondent and as the "soon-to-be interim anchor of 'The CBS Evening News,' " after USA Today had broken the news that Schieffer will fill in from the time Rather steps down as anchor March 9 until a newly and perhaps radically remodeled newscast is ready for public inspection in summer or fall.
This was probably the last State of the Union speech Rather will anchor. He did not look happy about it. Nor should anybody be happy about it.
Bush was interrupted more than 80 times for applause, sometimes applause that came only from the side of the chamber where the Republicans were congregated, but, as is hardly the custom, he was jeered a few times, too, during his long presentation of plans for "saving" Social Security, which he insists would otherwise need $200 billion by 2027. Bush got a healthy ovation when he said the issue was "more important than partisan politics," but then proceeded to make it a partisan political issue himself, proposing "voluntary personal retirement accounts" to supplement public funds.
At that point, reporters said after the speech, some Democrats were shouting "No! No!" though on TV it may have sounded to viewers like loud grumbling, the kind heard commonly during parliamentary sessions in England. Post-speech commentators seemed to agree that this was at the very least unusual, but not quite unheard of.
Bush soon divided the hall again when he said he supported a constitutional amendment "to protect the institution of marriage," which was a euphemism for banning same-sex marriages, though Bush didn't mention them. The man who likes to speak, as he did in this speech, of America's great "compassion" and who has been holding forth loudly of late on the sanctity of freedom apparently believes both compassion and freedom should have their limits.
There were other inconsistencies, but network commentators were too jolly -- some of them having had lunch with Bush at the White House earlier in the day -- to mention them. When he spoke of medical research and the controversial matter of using human embryos in the fight against diseases, Bush said one of the key precepts is "that human life is never bought or sold as a commodity." He didn't buy or sell anybody, but Bush used humans as commodities -- props -- in driving home his points last night.
In a tradition begun with great effectiveness by Ronald Reagan, the White House had planted guests in the chamber who were there to symbolize some point the president was trying to make, and the networks were advised in advance when to zoom in for shots of them. One woman, for instance, was identified as a happy Afghan voter and another, later, as a happy Iraqi activist. She was seated next to Laura Bush herself.
The president had been surprisingly low-key on the Iraqi elections as he began the speech, and those expecting him to exploit this apparent administration victory to the hilt may have been surprised. But he was only saving that for later in the speech -- the fourth quarter, as it were -- and then he let fly.
Bush also spoke, inevitably, of the valor of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq with no end in sight, or at least announced, and paid tribute to a fallen Marine from Texas, Sgt. Byron Norwood. Then came the most emotional moment of the evening. Janet and William Norwood, the young man's parents, were also seated in the gallery and stood up to tumultuous and prolonged applause. Janet Norwood hugged the Iraqi voter (one finger purple as a symbol of having voted), and they seemed to get briefly entangled in each other's jewelry as the applause went on.
The president, strikingly, stared up at the balcony with little visible emotion on his face but eyes that appeared to be growing misty. Was this a genuine expression of America appreciating its men and women in uniform, or a shameless political stunt using grief-stricken parents as pawns? As we all know in the age of media moments, it matters less what it was than what it was perceived to be, and to a greater degree than perhaps any other time since he's been in office, Bush appeared to have the perception presidency well in hand.