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Getting a Read On the Speech Makes for Quite A Snapshot

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

George W. Bush flirted with eloquence only at the end of his so-so, nuts-and-bolts State of the Union speech last night: "The state of our union is strong," he said, "our cause in the world is right, and tonight that cause goes on." With a quick "God bless" he bolted from the podium as members of Congress, almost applauded out by that time, gave him his final ovation of the night.

Bedecked in yet another of his pale blue neckties, Bush began the speech on a conciliatory and bipartisan note, declaring himself "the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker" -- a reference, of course, to Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who now presides over the House. Bush also congratulated "the Democratic majority" that he was facing en masse for the first time.

As seen on all the major and minor networks, the speech was workmanlike and the presentation presentable. Bush seemed determined to keep it low-key. Campbell Brown, reporting for NBC News, called it "extremely subdued." Brown had an unusual perspective, at least for a correspondent. Before the speech began, anchor Brian Williams told viewers that a journalist was being allowed to report from the floor of the House, right down there with the legislators, for the first time.

Brown was heard but not seen, however; she was not accompanied by a camera.

On CBS, Bob Schieffer called Bush's address "a much better speech" than the one in which he announced his plan to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, a speech delivered from the White House library earlier this month. Bush spoke of that plan last night as a fait accompli, not something he wants to talk over with anybody on Capitol Hill. "We are deploying" additional troops, he said -- not "we want to deploy" or "I would like to deploy."

To its credit, ABC News, alone among the three major networks, stayed on the air with coverage for the rest of the hour after Bush finished talking. Charles Gibson anchored from outside the Capitol in a topcoat. Even more exhaustive coverage was available on HDNet, a high-definition network whose anchor is Dan Rather. Yes, that Dan Rather, who preceded and followed the speech with interviews and features, signing off at 11 p.m.

On C-SPAN, which went to live pictures from the House chamber 15 minutes before the speech began, commentator Kenneth Walsh, of U.S. News & World Report, noted the presence of guest stars in the balcony both in the first lady's box and in the section controlled by Democrats. He predicted "dueling images of heroes and celebrities" during the speech.

Actually, it was more a case of dueling standing ovations as Republicans and Democrats took turns jumping to their feet to express approval for something Bush said. When the president used the terms "global warming" and "global climate change" -- probably for the first time in one of his State of the Union speeches, if not ever -- Democrats rose and clapped away. A moment later, when he called for quick approval of judges nominated to federal courts -- "a prompt up-or-down vote" in Congress, it was the Republicans' turn to stand and applaud, while most of the Democrats stewed in their seats.

Some members of Congress, forgetting they might be in a reaction shot at any moment, also forgot that it's best not to read along with the president from printed copies of his speech that they'd been given in advance. In a telling two-shot, viewers saw Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the foreground reading from the speech, and thus appearing almost to be asleep, and right behind him New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, quite possibly Obama's major foe in pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination for 2008, looking bright-eyed (and for all we know, bushy-tailed) and appearing to give the president her full and eager attention.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was caught by cameras reading the speech, too, but he looks so venerable and distinguished by now that it's hard to get a bad picture of him. In fact he seems more and more to resemble Claude Rains as a veteran white-haired senator in Frank Capra's classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Life imitating art's imitation of life.

Although Katie Couric is the presiding anchor on CBS, she increasingly relies on the expertise of Schieffer when covering big political events. They are now virtual co-anchors. While Couric read from prepared historical information about past State of the Union addresses, Schieffer did the up-to-date political analysis. In fact, he seemed to get even more screen time than Couric in the minutes leading up to the speech.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann told viewers the speech was to begin at 9:01:30 but allowed as how it could take 12 minutes for the president to make his way down the aisle to the podium, depending on how many hands got shaken. A lot did. And Bush didn't enter the chamber until 9:09; he finally began speaking at 9:13 (concluding at 10:03).

The Democratic response to the speech -- delivered last night by Virginia Sen. Jim Webb -- traditionally doesn't air until the president is out of sight. Could Bush have intentionally been delaying it by grasping every hand in sight and giving countless autographs when he got to the exit from the chamber? Whatever, he was, as the cliche goes, all smiles at this point, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is now, according to polls, as unpopular as Richard Nixon was when wallowing in Watergate.

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