A Speech Both Stately And Stolid

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Whether George W. Bush is, at best, the worst president since Herbert Hoover -- as a seemingly sizable number of Americans appear to believe -- he acquitted himself fairly well and came off as basically competent when he delivered his fifth State of the Union speech last night.

The address, televised on all the networks from the House chamber of the Capitol, was capably presented, well organized and sometimes lofty in tone. But it was also lackluster, ordinary and, most of all, generic. With only a few changes, the same speech could have been delivered a year ago, and maybe it was. Nobody remembers these things from one year to the next anyway.

At 9:42 p.m., about three-quarters of the way through, Bush observed a time-honored tradition. He once again called for a presidential line-item veto and once again got a hearty round of applause for the proposal. Perhaps a year from now he'll utter it yet again.

Fox News anchor Brit Hume said after the speech that at a luncheon Bush hosted for network anchors earlier in the day, the president was "as feisty and fiery as I have ever seen him" in discussing such topics as Iran and Iraq and terrorism generally. But last night's speech was neither feisty nor fiery; it tended more toward the conciliatory, at least where political opponents are concerned -- an attempt by Bush to sound reasonable, eager to compromise on some issues and, most of all, compassionate.

"I am a compassionate person," Bush insisted at least once during one of his campaigns for the White House, and compassion was a recurring theme, or at least word, last night. We should show "compassion" abroad, Bush said, and impress the world with "the compassion of America." Later he said America strives to be "a compassionate, decent, hopeful society" and, in praising first lady Laura Bush's work on behalf of the nation's children, lauded the virtues of "compassion and care for one another."

Could this somewhat cynically be called playing the compassion card -- or maybe pushing the compassion button? Doth the president protest too much, or at least insist too much on the degree of his own compassion? By contrast, he blasted, at various other points in the speech, defeatists and pessimists and other such grinches and grouches, including "defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure." This was stated not long after the president said of the war in Iraq, "We are in this fight to win, and we are winning."

Bush began the speech, wisely, by praising Coretta Scott King, the civil rights figure who died yesterday (and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who delivered the Democrats' response after the speech, also mentioned Mrs. King very early in his remarks). When in doubt, meanwhile, drag out the troops -- a tried and true Bush ploy. Though there is drastic disagreement about how the war in Iraq is going, all agree that American military personnel are doing exemplary service for their country.

Thus the obligatory guest stars in the gallery, a State of the Union custom begun by master orator Ronald Reagan, were the mother, father and wife of a Marine staff sergeant who died in the line of duty in Iraq. They stood for a prolonged and heartfelt round of applause from those in the chamber. Bush smiled and winked at them.

He was aggressive in pledging persistence in Iraq: "We must keep our word, defeat our enemies and stand behind the American military in this vital mission," he said, to another resounding ovation. "We love our freedom and we will fight to keep it," he said earlier, adding, "We will never surrender to evil," though there don't seem to be any major political figures who are proposing we do that. Bush also kept lashing out against "isolationism," as if any opposition to the war in Iraq represented that philosophy.

For the record, the president's first mention of 9/11 came at 9:15, only about eight minutes into the speech, which had begun, following the usual preliminaries, at 9:07. Later Bush invoked the memory of that terrorist atrocity to call for an extension of the controversial Patriot Act and give authorities carte blanche, or so it sounded, to listen in on telephone conversations to other countries.

He lapsed into the colloquial: "If there are people inside our country who are talkin' with al Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again," he said pugnaciously. He said that throughout American history "our great leaders" -- himself perhaps included? -- had consistently "rejected isolationism and retreat."

This morning, pundits will continue to analyze the speech and will carefully examine Bush's public approval ratings and other polls, trying to determine if the speech inched his popularity up or down one iota, one smidgen, one tiny bit. It is doubtful the speech will prove dramatically decisive one way or the other. On the other hand, it could hardly be called a flop or deemed poorly rendered.

"Bush the Incompetent" was the headline on a lacerating op-ed column last week. If that's who he is, you wouldn't know it from the State of the Union speech he gave last night, but it hardly qualified him for the title of Bush the Brilliant, either.

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