State of the Union: Surrender to Rhetoric

I watched the pre-game show on Fox, where the camera lingered lovingly on the pasty, blinking face of our newest confirmed Supreme Court Justice, still looking studiously, scarily bland, like a man who might, thank-you Ann Coulter, consume and survive rat poison. Surrealism leavened the boredom, as it always does on this annual evening in the House of Representatives. Who was that silent, scarf-shrouded mystery Muslim woman flanking Laura Bush and what was she thinking? Cindy Sheehan, Major Garrett reported, had been "detained, not arrested" before the President's arrival for attempting to unfurl a banner in the gallery, against House rules. What did the banner say and why couldn't Cindy keep it in her purse until the President got behind his teleprompter?

Predictably, the first 40 minutes of the speech were devoted to the phrases and slogans of war and fear that we've come to expect from our chickenhawk Commander in Chief. "Freedom on the march." "Enemies on the run." "The terrorists are serious." "We love our freedom." "We're in this fight and we are winning."

No speech would be complete with the trusty, old chestnut: "We will never surrender to Evil."

President Bush said all those things, and repeated some of them several times. The eyes glazed over, the mind was meant to conjure up images of imminent apocalypse, dirty bombs in New York, Iranian nukes raining down on Israel. His speechwriters like to take certain phrases, toss them together like a red meat salad, and serve them up. It doesn't matter how they're strung together, the effect they strive for has to do with accretion. Safety. Security. Danger. Terror. Freedom. Repeat after me. Keep your eyes on the small swinging crystal. You are getting verry sleepy.

Snap out of it.

It's been said before, but the word "freedom" is so Orwellian, so overused, so empty in this country's political discourse, the President might as well replace it with "beans" or "baseball." Maybe he did and nobody noticed?

The saddest part of the spectacle was watching each of the Democrats rise to applaud on cue after every reference to the tragic folly in Iraq. When Bush said "second guessing is not a strategy," even Rahm Emanuel and John Kerry gave him a standing ovation. Have these men lost all sense of pride and dignity? After awhile, they looked as hypnotized as parishioners in one of the mega-churches.

As for the troops, they were represented on site by the family of one late Marine Staff Sergeant Daniel Clay, whose picture flashed on the screen for a moment, along with his lifespan: 1977-2005. Thanks to the Bush administration's Iraq war, Sgt. Clay didn't make it to age 30. The White House brought his stunned, grieving family into the House and gave them seats of honor behind Laura and her Muslim friend. There ought to be a law against this dead-patriot porn. The President winked at them as he spoke, and then seemed to think better of it, and tried to morph the gesture into a blinking back of crocodile tears. Clearly, he gets their grief.

Only when Bush mentioned his failed Social Security gambit did the Democrats feel a rush of empowerment, and recklessly applaud their own success in saving that entitlement for their aging base, while the Republicans looked on dourly and the President sucked his teeth. For a second it seemed as though the loyal opposition might begin to behave as they ought, which would involve staying seated, and laughing, jeering, or snoring, especially when Bush uttered the lines about ethical reforms in Washington and his defense of massive illegal eavesdropping. "If there are people in this country talking to Al Qaeda, we want to know about it." Earth to George: If a fraction of the millions your administration is listening in on are talking to Osama's boys on any given day, you and Dick might as well just move into that undisclosed location right now.

No one laughed, no one jeered, no one snored. Once again, decorum sucked the starch right out of our liberal soldiers.

The pundits will probably be saying that the most interesting part of the speech came toward the end when Bush tried to present himself as interested in energy conservation, and proposed spending billions of dollars on alternative fuel technology research and on math and science programs for students and researchers. It was mildly astonishing. After driving this country's Treasury into a hole halfway to China, literally and figuratively, he's a little late to be getting the idea that nation-building begins at home. Track back through the pre-speech memos and find that that was tacked on to get a percentage of truck-driving nonreligious independents back on board, the ones so pissed off about gas prices, the ones Karl Rove is afraid of.

Our President waited until the last minute before he invoked God's blessing on America to bring up that little problem, the destruction of a major American city on his watch. He managed to discuss the state of our union, I believe, without ever saying the words New Orleans. What were we expecting? Some acknowledgement of tragedy and despair from a man who has so clearly not even now come to terms with the enormity of his own disastrous choices? If this State of the Union speech told us anything at all, it's that we will wait awhile for that kind of satisfaction.

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