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The 4th best State of the Union address: “Axis of evil”

The Fix is counting down what we think are the five most important of these annual presidential talk-a-thons.  They're ranked in order of their relative importance and lasting historical resonance. Woodrow Wilson's 1913 address came in at #5. Today we tackle George W. Bush's first State of the Union after September 11, 2001 as the 4th best SOTU ever.

President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2002 was memorable because of one line Americans will remember from that speech -- even if they can't pinpoint the phrase's origin. Or, as Elizabeth Bumiller at the New York Times put it, “Nobody ever remembers much from State of the Union speeches, but one thing they do remember is the ‘axis of evil’ formulation that President Bush brandished in last year's address to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea.”

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is applauded on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2002 after being acknowledged by President Bush during the president's State of the Union address. From left are, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney; Shannon Spann, widow of CIA agent Michael Spann who was killed in Afghanistan; and first lady Laura Bush. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Here’s the context for the phrase: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

The first State of the Union since September 11 -- and Bush's first as president --this speech set the tone for the rest of the Bush presidency, and made it clear that foreign policy in the Middle East was the administration’s new priority. And “axis of evil,” -- which was originally written as "axis of hatred" until an edit changed the wording to the ubiquitous phrasing we know today -- became the shorthand we used to reference that policy and issue judgment on the policymakers. As Washington Post reporters Glenn Kessler and Peter Baker put it in 2006: “Nearly five years after President Bush introduced the concept of an ‘axis of evil’ comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the administration has reached a crisis point with each nation: North Korea has claimed it conducted its first nuclear test, Iran refuses to halt its uranium-enrichment program, and Iraq appears to be tipping into a civil war 3 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion.”

Not only did the speech lay out who the Bush administration considered the biggest threats to America -- it also set the War on Terror in motion. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss sees the speech as the "definitive statement -- more concrete and exact than Bush’s post-9/11 speech to Congress -- of the president's intention to make the war on terror a worldwide crusade for democracy, however different regimes like Iran, Iraq and North Korea might otherwise be." In short, the address was the curtain raiser prepping the nation for the Iraq War, which would define American life for the next decade and dominate the next few election cycles. Stephen Zunes at Foreign Policy wrote this soon after the speech: "Despite widespread accolades in the media and strong bipartisan support in Congress, a careful examination of the language and assumptions in the address raise disturbing questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under the current administration."

The speech also has the distinction of being the first State of the Union broadcast live on the White House website. The address lasted 48 minutes, and the audience clapped 76 times. Bush's approval rating was 80 percent in January 2002. By his last State of the Union, his approval rating was 34 percent.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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