Newly-selected House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is getting some remarkably good press, considering his remarkably sordid political pedigree.
ABC News referred to the grizzled veteran of Capitol Hill, who was elected to the House when George Bush the Dad was president and Democrat Tom Foley was the Speaker of the House, as a "fresh face." The network's report on the House Republican Caucus vote to select a replacement for the indicted Tom DeLay was headlined: "New Leader, Ohio Rep. John Boehner, Campaigned as a Reformer."
The Los Angeles Times announced, with no apparent sense of irony, that: "By choosing Boehner to fill DeLay's shoes in the House, the party hopes to move past scandals."
Newsday just went for it, declaring above its report on Boehner's election: "A promise of reform wins vote."
As they say in the newsroom: Don't believe everything you read in the headlines.
Boehner is an old-fashioned shakedown artist whose promise of "change" amounts to little more than a pledge that he won't get caught like DeLay did. The Ohioan may be smoother than the Texan, but only a fool, or a Washington pundit looking to cozy up to the new boss, would mistake a better haircut and the absence of the stench of bug spray as evidence of ethics.
The best take on Boehner's elevation to the top of the Congressional food chain comes not from the Washington press corps but from one of the city's more watchdogs: Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
Referring to Boehner victory over the presumed favorite, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Missoui, in the House leadership contest as "a selection of Tweedle Dum over Tweedle Dee," Claybrook explained that, "The rejection of Representative Blunt shows that rank-and-file Republicans are aware the corruption scandal that has shaken Washington could put their majority status at risk. But the elevation of Representative Boehner, himself a product and proponent of the systemic problem of cronyism and influence-peddling that afflicts our nation's capital, is not a sign that business as usual will end."
Claybrook invites Americans to consider these facts about the man who, because of Speaker Dennis Hastert's obvious limitations, will now be the most powerful player in the House of Representatives:
* Boehner recently characterized Hastert's plan to ban privately funded travel as "childish" and dismissed the need for a ban on gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress. "If some members' vote can be bought for a $20 lunch, they don't need to be here," he said. Later, Boehner backed away from his characterization of the travel ban as "childish," but not the sentiment underlying his remark.
* Boehner's political action committee collected nearly $300,000 from private student lending companies and for-profit academic institutions from 2003-2004. Boehner has used his chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee to promote their pet causes - legislation that would make it more difficult to cut the fees on government student loans, which would cut into the private lenders market share, and legislation that would provide millions in subsidies to for-profit colleges and trade schools. (For more details on this, see a report in the Washington Post of January 28, 2006.)
* Boehner has taken more than $157,000 in free trips, placing him seventh among 638 current and former members of Congress, including senators, in the value of privately funded travel accepted between 2000 and 2005, according to American Radioworks. These included a $4,869 trip to Scotland in 2000 and a $9,050 trip to Rome in 2001, both of which were sponsored by the Ripon Educational Fund, a nonprofit group largely run by business lobbyists. Family members traveled with him for free on both trips.
* An exceptional number - at least 24 - former Boehner staff members have passed through the revolving door from government service to find work in the private sector as lobbyists or corporate public affairs specialists. (For more details on this, see a report in The Hill newspaper of February 1, 2006.)
* Boehner preceded indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the head of the "K Street Operation," the Republicans' efforts to coordinate policy and fundraising with well-heeled lobbyists, which since has been dubbed the "K Street Project." But the Ohioan lost the job to DeLay in 1998 after he was voted out as head of the Republican Conference. (For more details on this, see a report in the Baltimore Sun of December 21, 1998.)
* Boehner caught a large amount of flack for handing out checks to his colleagues from tobacco company PACs on the floor of Congress in 1995. Although not illegal, it certainly showed poor judgment but was consistent with his role at the time as the party's chief liaison with K Street. (For more details on this, see a report in the New York Times of May 10, 1996.)
The indictment of Boehner that Claybrook has advanced explains why principled Republicans in both the conservative and moderate camps backed a third candidate for the Majority Leader post, Arizona Representative John Shadegg, who promised to "clean up" the House. Shadegg described his race against Boehner and Blunt as "a choice between real reform and the status quo."
With Boehner's election, the status quo has prevailed. And as Claybrook notes with her usual bluntness -- and accuracy -- that is an ugly result not just for House Republicans but for America.
"Elevating a leader of the current broken system to be majority leader is an affront to voters and a stain on the Republican Party," Claybrook argues. "If the past is any guide, Boehner will now use this key position to undercut ethics and lobbying reforms in the House of Representatives."
The antidote to President Bush's vapid and unrealistic repetition of increasingly dangerous delusions about everything from the continued occupation of Iraq to warrantless wiretapping to race-to-the-bottom trade policies did not come in the official Democratic response to the State of the Union address delivered by newly elected Governor Tim Kaine. (I teased blogger Ezra Klein about making fun of Kaine's looks, but I have to admit that I was slightly hypnotized by the Virginia governor's manic eyebrows and lullaby-like delivery. Ezra, good having that drink earlier this week to sort out our differences (few) and agreements (many)--substantive, aesthetic.)
I guess I now think the Dem leadership would have been better off tapping Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer if it wanted a "can-do-let's-work-together-solutions-oriented" governor.
The real alternative State of the Union address was delivered earlier on SOTU day by California Representatives Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) who gathered at an event organized by the caucus, The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies to outline an ambitious agenda. It included a speedy withdrawal of troops from Iraq, universal health care, public financing of campaigns, earned amnesty for illegal immigrants, fair tax policies that actually create jobs and meet the needs of working Americans and the poor, debt relief for countries struggling with poverty or disease, and a real plan to end our addiction to oil.
The bluntness of the CPC members was refreshing. (It's worth remembering that if Dems retake the House, ten members of the Caucus would become chairs of committees. Think about Rep. John Conyers heading Judiciary.) Representative Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, countered the president's empty promises on health care, as well as the only slightly more palatable proposals of Congressional Democratic leaders, by declaring that the "only" answer to a burgeoning crisis is universal health care. Pete Stark, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, called for Medicare for All. California Democrat Maxine Waters was equally assertive when she dismissed Republican and Democratic proposals for ethics reforms by asserting that nothing will change in Washington until special-interest money is squeezed out of politics by developing a system for publicly-financed elections. This was the kind of talk that Americans needed to hear and, as they prepare for a 2006 campaign in which control of both houses of Congress is up for grabs, we hope that Democratic strategists were listening to a CPC message that is far more likely to resonate with voters than the too-cautious approach adopted by Democrats in the dismal 2002 and 2004 campaigns. To listen to that transcript, go to the Institute for Policy Studies
President Bush may have tried to claim a little bit of the legacy of Coretta Scott King with a warm and generous reference to her passing at the opening of his State of the Union address this week, but it should be remembered that Mrs. King was a foe of this president and a frequent critic of his abuses of power.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mrs. King celebrated the anniversary of birth of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by recalling that the slain civil rights leader had been outspoken in his opposition to unnecessary and unwise wars.
"We commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. as a great champion of peace who warned us that war was a poor chisel for carving out a peaceful tomorrow. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. Martin said, 'True peace is not just the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice,'" Mrs. King told a crowd that had gathered at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. She continued, "May his challenge and his example guide and inspire us to seek peaceful alternatives to a war with Iraq and military conflict in the Middle East."
Mrs. King continued to speak out against the Bush administration's policy of preemptive warmaking during the last years of her life, and she always made it clear that she disagreed passionately with this president.
When Bush showed up to lay a wreath at Rev. King's grave in January, 2004, Mrs. King was polite but pointed in her remarks. Before greeting Bush, she told another event at Ebenezer Baptist that she sided with opponents of the war, and she lamented the fact that, "Those people are not in charge of making the policies of their nations."
"If they were," she added, "I think we would have more peace and more justice."
There will be many celebrations of Coretta Scott King's brave and inspiring life, as well as her rich legacy of activism.
But none will be so appropriate as those that recall her absolute opposition to this president's illegal and immoral warmaking.
I've been following the controversy over editorial cartoons published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper that show the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb under his headdress, saying that paradise was running out of virgins for all the suicide bombers, and holding a sword with his eyes blacked out. Since Islam forbids any visual depiction of Mohammed, and since these cartoons basically argue that terrorism is inherent to Islam, Muslims across Europe have taken offense, some countries have boycotted Danish goods and a few are up in arms--literally.
Armed gunmen surrounded the EU office in Gaza, and in Pakistan a crowd burned Danish and French flags as they shouted "Death to Denmark." (And while these violent demonstrations were tiny, of course, this isn't going to help dispel the images so many in the West hold of angry, teeming, violent Muslim masses.) And now the managing editor of France Soir, who republished the cartoons to demonstrate solidarity and freedom of expression, has been fired.
It's complicated, but I'm strongly in favor of supporting those who publish even right-wing, offensive cartoons, poor judgment or no. Editorial freedom, including satire, is a deeply prized and hard-won right that we shouldn't be intimidated into giving up. It's a slippery slope. Just as we can't allow Christian fundamentalists to prevent satirizing the church in American papers, or the Bush Administration from prohibiting protest, nor should we allow fundamentalists of any kind to rewrite the world in their image. Secular papers have the right, and the duty, to live by secular rules.
From the first item of National Review's "The Week" section, 2/13/06:
In Osama's latest tape, he touts an obscure left-wing American book and borrows lines from Michael Moore. We're beginning to think that when we find him, he'll be carrying a Nation tote bag.
Yep, there's no accounting for taste. But when Private Jonah Goldberg enlists for combat and finally nabs Osama, inside that stylish tote bag he'll also find this inspirational quote by none other than National Review patriarch William F. Buckley: "Senator Kerry said, on Sept. 20 , that knowing what we know now, we'd have done better not to have invaded [Iraq]. I think he's right."
President Bush's repeated jabs at isolationism in his State of the Union Address may have also been directed at the Buckleyites. "As a boy," writes The New Republic, "Buckley named his first sailboat Sweet Isolation."
The left-liberal blogosphere has been in hyper-drive critiquing Bush's SOTU address since last night. As I'm teaching a class on US empire, I couldn't resist having my students read it. One of our questions: the particular distortions and factual errors of Bush's address aside (see the Institute for Public Accuracy's fisking), how different was his imperial rhetoric from Presidential speeches of yore?
Bush's talk began and ended with references to America's "historic long-term goal," its "destiny" to "seek the end of tyranny in our world." In doing so, Bush followed the long historical arc that begins with Jefferson's memorable characterization of the United States as "an empire for liberty." I won't subject you all to my lecture, but merely point out that President Clinton likewise linked U.S. hegemony with our "timeless" mission to spread freedom in his first inaugural address.
A hard question the left has yet to take up fully is: What came before and what comes after this particularly noxious imperial presidency? As JoAnn Wypijewski points out in her brilliant article for Harper's on torture and the Abu Ghraib trials, so many left-liberals romanticize the U.S. pre-Bush. I think the kicker to her piece is particularly powerful:
We are moved by arguments to assign responsibility up the chain of command; to reaffirm the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare; to establish clear rules in Congress limiting the CIA, foreclosing "black" operations, stipulating the rights and treatment of prisoners; to shut down Guantanamo and the global gulag; to drive Bush and Cheney and their cohort from office; in other words, to set America right again, on course as it was after the Vietnam War, a chastened empire still wielding a fearsome arsenal but with liberal intentions. We have not yet learned to pull up the orchard, to forsake the poisoned ground.
Minutes before the President of the United States would tell the Congress how much he appreciates "responsible criticism and counsel," the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq was dragged from a gallery overlooking the House chamber where Bush would speak, handcuffed and arrested for the "crime" of wearing a T-shirt that read: "2245 Dead. How many more?"
Cindy Sheehan, who had been invited to attend George Bush's State of the Union address by Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not put the "dangerous" shirt on for the event. The woman whose protest last summer outside the President's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, drew international attention to the antiwar movement, had been wearing it at events earlier in the day.
Indeed, as Sheehan, who had passed through Capitol security monitors without incident, noted, "I knew that I couldn't disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket and I didn't want to be disruptive out of respect for her."
No one has suggested that Sheehan was in any way disruptive.
So why was she arrested?
Because, as Sheehan recounts, she was identified as a dissident.
Before the arrest, media reports buzzed about official concern regarding Sheehan's presence. And, as she was being dragged from a room where the President would shortly extol the virtues of freedom and liberty, police explicitly told Sheehan that she was being removed "because you were protesting."
Capitol Police and other security officials, whose rough treatment of Sheehan was witnessed by dozens of people who attended the State of the Union event, said she was arrested for "unlawful conduct." Conveniently, she was held until after the President finished speaking.
Is there really a law against wearing a political T-shirt to the State of the Union address?
The Capitol Police, who on Wednesday dropped the charges against Sheehan, have acknowledged in an official statement that: "While officers acted in a manner consistent with the rules of decorum enforced by the department in the House Gallery for years, neither Mrs. Sheehan's manner of dress or initial conduct warranted law enforcement intervention."
What they have not acknowledged, and what is truly troubling, is the evidence that Sheehan was singled out for rough justice.
Beverly Young, the wife of Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showed for the State of the Union address up sporting a T-shirt that read, "Support the Troops--Defending Our Freedom." When Capitol Police asked her to leave the gallery because she was wearing clothing that featured a political message, Mrs. Young says, she argued loudly with officers and called one of them "an idiot."
But Mrs. Young was not handcuffed. She was not dragged from the Capitol. She was not arrested. She was not jailed.
Sheehan, who caused no ruckus, was arrested not because she engaged in "unlawful conduct." Rather, by every evidence, she was arrested because of what her T-shirt said--and, by extension, because of what she believes.
That makes this a most serious matter. Representative Pete Stark, the California Democrat who is one of the senior members of the House, is right when he says that Sheehan's arrest by officers he refers to as "the President's Gestapo," tells us a lot more about the George Bush and the sorry state of our basic liberties in the midst of the President's open-ended "war on terror" than anything that was said in the State of the Union address. "It shows he still has a thin skin," Stark says of the President who claims to welcome dissent.
It also shows that the father of the Constitution, James Madison, was right when he warned that, in times of war, the greatest danger to America would not be foreign foes but Presidents and their minions, who would abuse the powers of the executive branch with the purpose of "subduing the force of the people."
This one incident involving one T-shirt is a minor matter. But seen in the context of the mounting evidence of constraints on legitimate protest, warrantless wiretaps and the abuses of the Patriot Act, it reminds us of the the truth of Madison's warning that: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Never misunderestimate George W. Bush. Here's a President who's gutted the Treasury, eroded the environment, divided our society, ruined our reputation, frayed our military, undermined our security, inspired our enemies and overall weakened America. But there he stood tonight and delivered a State of the Union speech disconnected from the reality we are living in.
As Tom Engelhardt has observed, the way gunmen once reached for their guns, this Administration reaches for its dictionaries to find words to deceive and distract people.
I know that the long battle to retake our country from the forces of extremism, corruption, mendacity and injustice requires bold ideas and principles. But in the meantime, remember that language is power and clever words sell really rotten policies. Or, as that savvy political philosopher George Carlin once said, "Whenever the other side has you talking their language, they've got you."
So, for all decent and truth-loving Americans, here's a quick guide to decoding last night's SOTU. All of these definitions come from my Dictionary of Republicanisms:
1. When conservative Republicans work with moderate Republicans to pass legislation that Democrats hate.
2. Another name for date rape [Grover Norquist, Third Level, Hell].
Compassionate Conservatism, n.
1. Republican pre-election concern for the disadvantaged [Gary Hunter, Thomasville, NC].
2. (a) I got mine; (b) I got yours too [Brian Kenner, Tervuren, Belgium].
3. Poignant concern for the very wealthy [Laurence Sandek, Twin Peaks, CA].
1. A product so extensively exported that the domestic supply is depleted.
2. When they vote for us; see TYRANNY: When they vote for someone else [Rebecca Solnit, San Francisco, CA].
Ending Tyranny, catchphr.
1. Bombing followed by military occupation [Kerry Jones, Houston, TX].
Energy Independence, n.
1. The Yucca Mountain renovation program [Kimberly Ellenberger, Beloit, WI].
2. The Caribou witness relocation program [Justin Rezzonico, Keene, OH].
1. God-given right of every American to agree with Bush and his policies [Ken Guarino, Miami, FL].
2. What Arabs want but can't achieve on their own without Western military intervention; it bears a striking resemblance to chaos [Matthew Polly, Topeka, KS].
Free Markets, n.
Halliburton no-bid contracts at taxpayer expense [Sean O'Brian, Chicago, IL].
Frivolous Lawsuits, n.
Those filed against corporations that donate heavily to the GOP [Fred Bonavita, San Antonio, TX].
1. The justification for tax cuts for the rich.
2. What happens to the national debt when Republicans cut taxes on the rich [Matthew Polly, Topeka, KS].
Health Savings Accounts, n.
1. Another tax shelter for the healthy and the wealthy [Ann Wegher, Montello, WI].
2. Investment capital for banks [Bill DiNome, Wilmington, NC].
Lies told in simple declarative sentences--e.g., "Freedom is on the march." [Katrina vanden Heuvel, New York, NY].
Job Growth, n.
Increased number of jobs an American has to take after losing earlier high-paying job [John E. Tarin, Arlington, VA].
Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, n.
No Drug Company Left Behind [George K. McHugh, Dublin, CA].
No Child Left Behind, riff.
There are always jobs in the military [Ann Klopp, Princeton, NJ].
Member of good standing in the Federalist Society [Mark Hatch-Miller, Brooklyn, NY].
Personal Responsibility, n.
1. Poor people trying to support their families on $5.75 an hour.
2. Rich people changing the tax code so their children never have to work [Chelsea Snelgrove, Atlanta, GA].
To end all entitlements [Herbert New, Verona, NJ].
Staying the Course, v.
Saying and doing the same stupid thing over and over, regardless of the result [Suzanne Smith, Ann Arbor, MI].
Support the Military, v.
To praise Bush when he sends our young men and women off to die for a lie without proper body armor [Marc Goldberg, Vancouver, WA].
Tax Reform, n.
The shift of the tax burden from wealth to work [Dan McWilliams, Santa Barbara, CA].
I hope this helps decode Bush's speech.
For George W. Bush, at least. In this year's State of the Union address, Bush led with his weakness--the Iraq War--and stuck to the un-nuanced and bold (if misleading) assertions he has used to justify the war and to argue for staying the course, his course.
After speaking of the death of Coretta Scott King (in which he endorsed the notion of heaven by speaking of her "reunion" with her husband), calling for preserving a "civil tone" in the "tough debates" of Washington (this from the man who during the 2002 campaign claimed the Democrats "were not interested in the security of the American people") and referring to September 11 (suggesting that it was the lack of democracy in Afghanistan that brought "murder and destruction to our country"), Bush launched into his standard comic-book defense of the war on Iraq. To protect America, he explained, the United States must fight for freedom and democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. (WMDs in Iraq? Whoever said anything about WMDs in Iraq?) "We do not forget," Bush said, the people who live in undemocratic "Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran." He did not include China in this list. And in Iraq, he continued, "terrorists like bin Laden...aim to seize power" and use Iraq as a "safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world." He added, "A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison...[and] put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country."
This is--to be polite--an absurd analysis. The insurgency, as even Bush has noted in other speeches, is mainly made up of rejectionists and Baathist remnants. Islamic terrorists are a fraction. They are fighting the United States more than they are fighting to take over Iraq. Moreover, these foreign jihadists are hardly in a position to "seize power" in Iraq. The dominant (Iran-backed) Shiite theocrats now in control are unlikely to let that happen, and they have militias of their own. But Bush depicted the mess in Iraq as an us-against-Al Qaeda clash. That is disingenuous and ignores the harsh realities and policy dilemmas created by the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq.
After laying out a false white-hat/black-turban dichotomy, Bush turned into a cheerleader. "We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it," he intoned. There can be no "retreating within our borders.... There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat.... The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil." Get the picture? And, interestingly, he equated disengagement in Iraq with "isolationism" several times in the speech. (Did a new memo come in from the pollsters?)
After rallying the public with his Americans-don't-retreat cry, he vowed he had a "clear plan for victory." He did not say when the clarity of that victory will become apparent. But he claimed, "We are winning." He did not--to borrow a term fancied by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--offer any "metrics" for supporting this claim. Then came the inevitable we-must-support-the-troops rationale for sticking with the war. And Bush pointed out the parents and widow of Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, who was killed last month in Falluja. They were sitting behind Laura Bush in the balcony. A bipartisan, standing ovation ensued. Was this a moment of genuine respect for the family of a fallen soldier? Was it a moment of exploitation, in which Bush was using their tragic, heart-wrenching sacrifice to prop up his war (which will produce other grieving parents and spouses)? The line between the two was thin.
When it came time to address his authorization of warrantless wiretaps, Bush was unapologetic and in-your-face. Staring at the members of the House and Senate before him--his voice rising--Bush defiantly defended what he called his "terrorist surveillance program." He suggested that if such a program had existed before 9/11 (when his Administration was proceeding slowly in devising a plan for dealing with Al Qaeda), perhaps the attack could have been prevented. (Prior to 9/11, the CIA and the FBI did have a bead on two of the hijackers, without having resorted to the use of warrantless eavesdropping, and failed to act until it was too late.) Becoming louder, Bush proclaimed, "If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al Qaeda, we want to know about it--because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again." Republicans jumped to their feet. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled, perhaps in amazement at or appreciation of Bush's brazenness. In a classic Rove-ian maneuver, Bush was daring Democrats to come after him on this point. The not-too-hidden message: Go ahead, make my day; I'll shove this down your throats in the coming elections. As GOPers shouted their approval, that long-ago-banished smirk seemed to flash on Bush's face for an instant.
Bush does this sort of speechifying well. The sentiments and arguments are stark--easy to convey. But his defense of Iraq was nothing new. It's hard to imagine this rhetoric having much, if any, impact on public attitudes here or abroad. After nearly three years of war in Iraq, Bush's words matter little. The mess there will remain once the speech is done.
In his 2002 and 2003 State of the Union speeches, Bush telegraphed the invasion of Iraq. This time, even as he promoted a global crusade for democracy, he was less bellicose. (There's nothing like having an overextended and stretched-to-its-max military to moderate tough talk.) On Iran, Bush and his speechwriters (who went through thirty drafts of this not-so-monumental speech) showed they can learn from past mistakes. Unlike the 2003 State of the Union address--in which Bush presented the unconfirmed charge that Iraq had been uranium-shopping in Africa--Bush this time was more circumspect in decrying a foe. He said that the "Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions"--"ambitions" being a somewhat vague term. And he stayed clear of any details. He also told Iranians, "We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom." Could that be read as a pledge that he will not use military force to export freedom to Iran? (I hope a reporter asks Scott McClellan about this.)
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Jackgate, Alito, and more.
The domestic stuff was mostly the same-old/same-old. Make the tax cuts permanent. (Don't worry about the massive and structural deficit that is growing.) Cut programs. (No need to note that federal spending has ballooned under the gaze of Bush and Congressional Republicans.) On healthcare, he pushed Health Savings Account, an initiative that insurance companies support and that mainly addresses the needs of people who already can afford to buy health insurance. He declared America "is addicted to oil," urged a boost in nuclear energy and proposed a series of fine-sounding initiatives regarding alternative energy. (Look for the inevitable statements from alternative energy experts that will show that Bush's proposals are on the slim side.) He called for training 70,000 new teachers for advanced-placement courses in math and science in high schools--but said nothing about college education. (He certainly did not boast about the recent cuts in college funding.) When Bush turned to Social Security--a focus of last year's address--he essentially hoisted a white flag. "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," he said, and Democrats began applauding and hooting. This was the closest the US Congress gets to question time in the British Parliament. Bush trudged on and called for creating a bipartisan commission to deal with the long-term fiscal challenges posed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. On the economy--no shocker--he said all was swell and pointed out that in the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs. (His speechwriters left out this factoid: To keep up with population growth, the US economy needed to add between 4.5 and 5 million jobs in this period.)
Bush twice referred to Jackgate--the Congressional corruption scandal tied to felonious GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. First, he equated public concern "about unethical conduct by public officials" with worries about "activist courts that try to redefine marriage." Seriously, he did, suggesting a moral equivalency between sleazy and criminal lawmakers and judges who decide that state Constitutions require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moments later, Bush offered the most benign comments on Jackgate a speechwriter could concoct: "A hopeful society expects elected officials to uphold the public trust. Honorable people in both parties are working on reforms to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington--and I support your efforts."
Commentators often complain when a SOTU comes across as a laundry list of overly hyped proposals meant to cover every area of policy known to Washington wonks. Bush certainly did not go overboard in this manner. Here is a partial list of subjects he did not have anything to say about: global warming, wage levels, missile defense, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, genocide in Sudan, torture, the mission to Mars (he promoted in SOTU 2004), the campaign against steroids (he promoted in SOTU 2004), Michael Brown and FEMA, and corporate responsibility.
At the end, Bush attempted a soaring-rhetoric finale. He equated his mission to change the world with the work of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, stating,
We have entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite.... [E]very great movement of history comes to a point of choosing. Lincoln could have accepted peace at the cost of disunity and continued slavery. Martin Luther King could have stopped at Birmingham or at Selma, and achieved only half a victory over segregation. The United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe, and been complicit in the oppression of others. Today, having come far in our own historical journey, we must decide: Will we turn back, or finish well?
Such rhetoric sounds good. But does it have any real meaning? There was no way for King to have achieved "half a victory over segregation." What would that have looked like? Integrated buses, but segregated lunch counters? And, as critics of Yalta grouse, the United States did accept the division of Europe, at least for decades. (The alternative was probably war, perhaps nuclear war.) And the United States has been complicit in the "oppression of others" by supporting repressive regimes and brutal armies in such nations as Chile, South America, El Salvador, the Philippines, Argentina, Iran and Iraq.
"Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage," Bush declared. "Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and we will finish well." Written in courage--it's a nice notion. But can Bush persuade Americans to stick with him in Iraq (and elsewhere) by tossing out well-crafted and dramatic lines that seem suitable for a Mel Gibson historical epic and that are designed to appeal to cliche-driven sentiments? It is a simple plan--and perhaps the best he's got.