By Tom Shales
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
George W. Bush finished his seventh and possibly final State of the Union speech at 10:02 p.m. last night, but 10 minutes later, he was still on TV, perhaps setting a record for the longest exodus from the House chamber of any sitting president. He was a slow-walking president at this point, preceded down the aisle by a hand-held camera that captured his hand-shaking and genial small talk as he obligingly autographed printed copies of the speech.
To one man, the president could be heard asking, "How's your girl doing? Tell her I was asking about her." Not a great president, experts and plain folks seem to agree but, maintaining a look of ruddy ebullience, arguably a great politician.
As for the speech itself -- it was merely the recitation of "a minimalist agenda by a lame-duck president," said NBC's Tim Russert, who noted Bush's inclusion of "a full-throated defense of his policies in Iraq." However lackluster the speech, it was vigorously delivered. On CBS afterward, Katie Couric said the president appeared "almost giddy at times."
It's been 20 years, someone noted, since Ronald Reagan's last State of the Union address. A clip of the 1988 speech, shown on C-SPAN2, revealed the great communicator at his best. Reagan introduced the idea of guest heroes in the balcony to enhance the speech, and though Bush did not cite any, several were assembled for reaction shots. CBS identified one of them with a superimposed "Tara Kunkel, registered nurse."
"Tara Kunkel, Registered Nurse." It sounds like an old radio soap opera. Exactly what Tara Kunkel had to do with things wasn't entirely clear to viewers, but she made a nice visual. (A White House news release described Kunkel as a nurse in New Palestine, Ind., who wrote Laura Bush to say a published interview with the first lady about warning signs of a heart attack helped to save the life of one of Kunkel's patients.)
It may be that however energetically or emotionally Bush gave his speech, it would still have been upstaged by the larger and louder speech of the day, Teddy Kennedy's grand and happily hammy tribute to presidential hopeful Barack Obama, televised live on CNN and other cable networks from American University. CNN foolishly cut away from that speech at one point, not realizing it was pure history in the making, but then returned to it and stayed with it to the conclusion. It was a speech in the old style, moving and momentous.
Last night Bush was assertive nearly to the point of bellicosity as he discussed his pursuit of the war in Iraq and his version of U.S. foreign policy, which dominated the second half of the speech. "We will deliver justice to our enemies," he said with a kind of Old Testament thunder. "Al-Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated," he declared, adding, a little later, "We will not rest until this enemy has been defeated."
He did not speak softly, but he carried a big shtick.
The Republicans in the House chamber naturally loved it and interrupted the president with applause more times than even he appeared to expect. There was one dramatic wide shot of the chamber right after Bush demanded renewed funding for the interception of communications among terrorist groups. "The time to act is now," he said, and in the shot one could see precisely half the assemblage -- the Republican half -- rise as if one person, while the Democrats, in the foreground, sat still in their seats.
Bush, who wore the bright blue tie he favors for public appearances, used the word "empower" a lot, as well as several utterances of "must," as in "Congress must" do this and "Congress must" do that. Sometimes the applause was so mechanical and perfunctory that it seemed to say, "We all know you're not going to get that, but we'll go along with the pretense for the sake of the TV audience."
C-SPAN viewers saw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) call the joint session to order at 8:52, going through the parliamentary pomp and circumstance that are part of the event, if only on the cable network of record. On ABC, Charlie Gibson said he found the event to be "majestic" whether the president was a lame duck or not; the spectacle was grand, indeed, on networks that aired it in high definition.
Before the speech, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said the president's popularity had sunk to "the low 30s or so," but CBS's Couric put Bush's approval rating at 29 percent, stunningly low even for him. Former senator George McGovern has called for Bush's impeachment, but nobody seems to have latched onto that bandwagon, nor even paid much attention.
"It's going to be a rough year for the president," predicted veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer, a virtual co-anchor with Couric for CBS's coverage, and yet most of the network big shots, who'd been invited to a White House get-together with the president earlier in the day, remarked on his stubbornly jovial spirits. Couric said he'd seemed "downright upbeat" (he did in the speech, too) and CNN's Blitzer said he came away from the White House thinking Bush "sees his final year in office as a sprint."
He certainly didn't sprint down that aisle after the speech ended. It was the languid, leisurely walk of a man seemingly at peace with the world -- and one whose approval rating of himself seemingly has never dropped much below 100.