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Into the Freying Pan

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

If there were justice in the world, George W. Bush would have to give his State of the Union address from Oprah's couch.

Not when she's being the New Age, touchy-feely Oprah, though. Bush should have to face the wrathful, Old Testament Oprah who subjected author James Frey to that awful public smiting the other day. She could open with the same line she used on Frey, whose best-selling memoir, which Oprah had touted on her show, turned out to be a tissue of lies. "I have to say it is -- it is difficult for me to talk to you, because I really feel duped. I feel duped," Oprah could tell the president.

And just maybe, as happened with Frey, the cockiness and bluster would instantly drain from the president's face as he grimly steeled himself to take his medicine.

Now that would be a State of the Union address worth watching -- one that would get a lot closer to the real state of the Union than the usual Kabuki theater of revisionist history, empty promises, focus-group-certified applause lines and choreographed nods to carefully selected heroes in the balcony.

The president's annual report to Congress and the American people has devolved into a ritual so predictable there isn't even much suspense left in counting how many times the speech is "interrupted" by comically unspontaneous applause, most of it from the president's own party. If you were watching the speech in a bar with friends (not likely, I realize), there is one drinking game you might play (not that I'm advocating any such thing, of course): Down a shot every time the president says something so bipartisan, irresistibly patriotic or blindingly obvious that Democrats have to rise to their feet as well.

True, any president's first State of the Union speech is actually an important moment in his presidency. But we've been hearing these perorations for years now, so the novelty has worn off. In Bush's case, his version of the Iraq war is shared by some people and rejected by others, and at this point no speech could possibly change many minds. And on the domestic front, promised new programs will lose their luster after Americans realize that years of unchecked spending and chainsaw tax cuts have left the government with no money to pay for them.

How much more revealing it would be to sit the president down with Oprah and let her go after him. He'd go through his explanation of how the war against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda became a war to depose Saddam Hussein because he had weapons of mass destruction, only we learned that those weapons didn't exist, but by then it didn't matter because Iraq had become the "central front" in the war against terrorism, even though bin Laden remains free to inspire jihadists around the world. Oprah would respond, as she did to Frey's convoluted rationalizations, with a withering "Mm-hmm."

Then Bush could try to explain why he had stained the nation's honor with extrajudicial kidnapping, indefinite detention and shameful abuse of terrorist suspects, and why he had authorized the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance without following established procedures to first obtain warrants. And as Bush cited his lawyers' memos arguing that torture isn't really torture and that the law on domestic spying doesn't say what it in fact clearly says, Oprah could give him a skeptical "Uh-huh."

Then she could ask about the promise Bush made, in his televised speech from flooded New Orleans, to do whatever it took to rebuild that devastated city. She could ask him why, if he really meant what he said, his aides have rejected the one measure proposed thus far that could get things moving -- a bill that would create a buyout program for ruined properties. If Bush began mumbling about how city officials needed to come up with a rebuilding plan, Oprah could stop him short, the way she did Frey: "I don't know what that means." She could point out that the city did come up with a plan, and that federal officials should be engaged in trying to correct its flaws -- not sitting back in Washington while a great city dies.

Oprah might tell the president that the nation's highest elected official, even in wartime, has the duty to tell the American people the truth and obey the law. And if he said no he didn't, she could respond with the same words she used to Frey's chagrined publisher:

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, you do. Yes."

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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