A column about President Bush's State of the Union Address in some editions of the Jan. 29 Style section misrepresented part of the speech. The president said the British government has learned that Iraq recently attempted to acquire significant quantities of uranium from Africa. (Published 1/30/03)
Though not quite the war rally some had predicted, George W. Bush's State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation last night reached its most effective and dramatic moments in its second half, when the president turned from domestic programs to foreign issues -- mainly, of course, Saddam Hussein and his allegedly concealed weaponry.
Not by nature a gifted public speaker, Bush did well for the most part, warming up himself and the crowd with a semi-ambitious domestic agenda (with, as a sop to the far right, a call for an end to "partial-birth abortions"), then changing to a more somber and urgent tone as he enumerated Saddam Hussein's offenses against humanity.
The speech had, somewhat surprisingly, moments of penetrating eloquence, eloquently delivered. Bush received one of his longest standing ovations when, summoning the memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he vowed: "We will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men. Free people will set the course of history."
Perhaps the most artfully crafted part of the speech came just before the conclusion, after Bush's long but measured harangue against Iraq's dictator: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity." Beautiful.
It is hard to recall Bill Clinton uttering a better-turned phrase and he had eight years in the White House, while Bush has had only two.
He also got, predictably, a huge standing ovation when he saluted the U.S. military, especially those troops stationed in the Mideast, and said, "You believe in America, and America believes in you."
On CBS, Bob Schieffer said Bush all but issued a declaration of war when, earlier in the speech, he declared with finality that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, "we will lead a coalition to disarm him." Even Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Lieberman could be seen standing and applauding that threat.
All the network nabobs agreed that Bush will have to make another speech to Congress before he can send America to war against Iraq, and a critic of the president said on public television that Bush would have to get even more "specific" with his charges against Hussein. But the president seemed quite specific as he ticked off the allegations last night, including the news that Iraq had secured uranium from Africa for the purpose of making nuclear bombs.
Unfortunately, Bush pronounces nuclear as "new-cue-lur," but he's hardly the first person or even the first president to do that.
Bush delayed his own speech too long by making a painfully protracted entrance into the hall, shaking too many hands as he sauntered down the aisle. Again he wore the kind of bright blue tie he favors. Maybe he thinks it helps soften the effect of his dark, sharky eyes.
He seemed to get his urge to squint, or his squint reflex or whatever it is, out of the way early in the speech. He was more authoritative and assertive than usual. Certainly he is a more engrossing speechmaker than his father, whose addresses were almost always a dreadful chore to endure.
Network coverage was sloppy to the extent that cameras would zoom in on particular figures listening in the audience but often there would be no identifying caption to tell the uninformed who they were. NBC found a self-aggrandizing use for the graphics at the bottom of the screen, however, telling viewers -- while the president spoke -- that they could tune to MSNBC for more poop about -- whatever.
Running a cheap, grubby promo under the image of the president of the United States giving a vital address to the nation is the same as running a commercial. Perhaps NBC will consider that option sometime in the future. All networks are greedy, but NBC is pathological.
The Democratic response to the president's speech was given by Gov. Gary Locke of Washington state. It was clear from his very first words that Locke is at home in front of a TV camera and uses the medium expertly.
"We are at a solemn moment in the history of this country," Dan Rather of CBS News said as CBS coverage of the speech signed on. What people are likely to remember, and to be talking about this morning, are not the domestic programs Bush advocated -- including reform of the nation's chaotic health care system -- but the warrior words from the second half of the speech, a speech that ran a nearly Clintonian hour in duration.
As usual, the speech was slowed by unnecessary interruptions for applause. The Republicans were jumping jacks again, leaping to their feet at every opportunity while, often, the Democrats and viewers at home sat still -- waiting for the robotic applause to die down.
Portions of the speech were chilling, including a segment in which Bush described tortures used by Iraqi officials against citizens there. Addressing the people of Iraq -- who, as was pointed out by Connie Chung on CNN, probably wouldn't have the opportunity to hear the speech -- Bush said: "Your enemy is not surrounding your country. Your enemy is ruling your country."
It was similarly shocking when Bush said that if Saddam Hussein or terrorists use chemical or germ warfare against the United States, it could result in "a day of horror like none we have ever known" -- quite a statement in light of the horror wreaked on Sept. 11, 2001.
Some members of Congress and the pundit elite may remain skeptical, but chances are Bush changed more than a few American minds with his speech last night. Doves may not have become hawks, but the proverbial "undecideds" are probably more inclined now to see things Bush's way.
For better or for worse.