George W. Bush knows what to do with a bully pulpit. From the days of Thomas Jefferson to those of William Taft, the State of the Union was a written message delivered by presidents to Congress. Woodrow Wilson turned it into a speech. Subsequent presidents used the State of the Union as a high-profile opportunity to promote their political agendas. Bush went beyond that this evening. He produced grand and effective political theater. In the middle of the address, he transformed the war in Iraq–which even after the historic election there arguably remains his largest liability–into a single, powerfully poignant moment. Exploiting the tradition of inviting symbolically significant guests to sit with the First Lady, Bush introduced the mother of a US Marine killed in Fallujah and an Iraqi human rights advocate whose father had been assassinated by Saddam Hussein and who had voted in Sunday’s election. With the House chamber awash with emotion, the two women hugged. Bush was near tears. Members of Congress–perhaps including those legislators who had dyed their index fingers purple for the event–were crying. In a nutshell, here was Bush’s story of sacrifice, liberty and freedom. Sentiment–sincere sentiment–was in full synch with spin. The not-too-hidden partisan message: Match that, you naysayers. This was a triumph of political communication. And it was a reminder that despite the apparent difficulties Bush faces in his top-priority effort to partially privatize Social Security, he should hardly be counted out. This man does what it takes.
Bush’s approval ratings have been low, but in the aftermath of the Iraqi elections, he approached this speech as a conquering hero–a vindicated hero. There was, of course, no mention of Iraq’s (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction. No recognition that America’s standing in the world has fallen to an all-time low. No acknowledgment that the administration had failed to plan adequately for the post-invasion period. Bush has not a bashful bone. For him, the Iraqi election was a signal (from God?): full steam ahead. He did not shy away from the freedom-is-our-mission rhetoric of his inaugural speech, which was widely criticized for being cynically unrealistic. Bush declared, “America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” And he named names, calling upon Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two autocracies long supported by Washington, to move toward democracy. Certainly, he–or Condoleezza Rice–might be on the phone tomorrow to Cairo and Riyadh, explaining that Bush does not expect immediate action. Nevertheless, such words probably will provide encouragement to democracy activists in those countries and in others. These people, though, should keep in mind that Bush’s father–who clearly is no role model for his son–egged on the Shiites in Iraq at the end of the Gulf War and then did not come to their rescue when they were slaughtered.