From the Oval Office, a Call to See the Light at the End of the Tunnel

The president after his 16-minute televised speech on Iraq.
The president after his 16-minute televised speech on Iraq. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Tom Shales
Monday, December 19, 2005

Determined to sound determined, President Bush addressed the nation on the troublesome subject of Iraq in a 16-minute speech last night from the Oval Office. Grim-faced, yet with a trace of anxiety in his eyes, Bush delivered the remarks seated rigidly at a desk, making a variety of hand gestures as he spoke and wearing one of his traditional baby-blue ties.

Bush apparently wanted to sound firm but compassionate, extending something of an olive branch -- more of an olive twig, really -- to those who have criticized the war in Iraq, yet also insisting that he won't give a proverbial inch until the mission really is accomplished.

To retreat before securing a victory would be wrong, Bush said sternly, "and I will not allow it." Pundits and politicians can argue about whether Bush was sounding determined or arrogant. Bush also opened himself to criticism of believing only what he wants to believe (the hermetically sealed president, as his image has it) by declaring, "My fellow citizens: Not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq."

Bush cited in his defense recent opinion polls that indicated a large majority of the Iraqi people are happy with the U.S. presence in their country and also mentioned, as everyone knew he would, the high voter turnout in the recent Iraqi elections. The poll results, news about the elections and a series of other Bush speeches were part of a month-long buildup to solidify the home front, halt or reverse Bush's plunging popularity, and discredit critics of the war who demand a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces -- though Bush himself left the door open for doing with "fewer American troops" as Iraqi participation increases.

The climax of the month-long campaign was the brief but punchy address -- long enough to get viewers' attention but not so long as to disrupt Sunday evening viewing habits and possibly anger the folks out there in Television Land. ABC's popular "Desperate Housewives," for instance, aired in its entirety once the speech was over. Watch for one wag or another to say that "Desperate Housewives" followed "Desperate President."

In an effort to look candid and self-effacing, Bush conceded early in the speech that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq following the removal from power of Saddam Hussein and that intelligence suggesting otherwise "turned out to be wrong," hardly the first time this has been admitted. But the war still turned out to be a jim-dandy idea, Bush said, because victory will establish a beachhead for democracy in the perpetually troubled Mideast.

In his own defense, Bush kept stressing the difficulty of the military effort. "This war, like others in our history, has been difficult," he said fairly early in the speech. Later he said the war in Iraq has been "especially difficult, more difficult than we expected," still later said again "the war is difficult" and near the end of the speech referred to the effort in Iraq as a "difficult, noble and necessary cause."

Apparently, it's difficult.

With a nod to the holiday season, Bush closed with lyrics from the traditional carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day": "God is not dead nor does He sleep," Bush said and, finally, "The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to men." The question that will be asked repeatedly in the hours and days ahead is whether the speech resulted in increased goodwill to the president.

Bush's critics will find plenty to pick on, as when Bush warned of the consequences should terrorists gain control of the Iraqi government. In such cases, he warned, "all dissent is crushed," but skeptics could be expected to predict the same thing could happen in this country if Bush's draconian Patriot Act is extended according to his wishes. Bush also made sure to mention Sept. 11, 2001, date of the worst attack in history upon the United States, within the first six or seven minutes of the speech.

On CBS after the president finished, anchor Bob Schieffer said Bush departed from custom by admitting mistakes and called the speech "a plea for patience." On NBC, Brian Williams appeared alone among network anchors in mentioning that 250 protesters chanted in support of withdrawal from Iraq outside the White House while Bush spoke inside.

On ABC, the new anchor team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, soon to take over ABC's "World News Tonight," made a bumbling bow. Woodruff nervously stumbled over several words in attempting to summarize the speech and its implications, while Vargas sat beside him twiddling her thumbs and playing with her writing implements.

Over on the smaller networks that have no news departments, regular programming continued without interruption, since the president's speech was not aired. The WB happened to be showing "The Wizard of Oz," which once aired opposite a speech by Ronald Reagan. Mrs. Reagan later said she enjoyed published comments comparing the president to the wizard. Bush seems less likely to be likened to Oz except to the extent that the wizard is at one point denounced as "a humbug."

Moments later, told he is "a very bad man," the great and powerful Oz says, "Oh no, my dear, I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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