Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2003 / 25 Shevat, 5763
The president's critics will be disappointed tonight: A White House insider's view of the State of the Union
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | "An army of platitudes in search of an idea." The withering description of one of Warren Harding's speeches invariably captures the annual State of the Union address. There are exceptions: Monroe's eponymous Doctrine, Lincoln's appeal to the "last best hope," FDR's Four Freedoms, and LBJ's Great Society. Yet all that Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution really calls upon the president to do is "give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary."
Such "measures," of course, have multiplied as the power of the federal government has expanded. As a result, the State of the Union (SOU) has become a battlefield for policy disputes and turf wars within the modern administration. Style and thematic integrity are ritualistically sacrificed in the charnel practice called the "staffing process" - in which various agencies vent their outrage on the speechwriter for failing to more prominently advance their proposals. Scribes who survive resign themselves to salvaging whatever remnants of poetry they can from the rising tide of angry editorial ink.
So far, the Bush wordsmiths seem to have managed better than most. Last year's SOU was universally lauded, with even the New York Times conceding the President had "soared to new heights." It's more than talent - though Bush has picked the sharpest quills in the business. This team also enjoys three advantages most of their predecessors lacked.
The first is access. The core troika that works jointly on most major addresses (chief speechwriter Mike Gerson, Matthew Scully, and John McConnell) has been with the President since1999. Their tenure has fostered a tight working relationship with Bush - and each other: they bang out speeches, crowded around a single computer, playing riffs with words and ideas. Gerson conducts - but Bush calls the tune.
The president meets regularly with his writers in the residence, compared to the brief, distracted meetings I attended when I wrote for his father, Bush Sr.. In my day, West Wing passes and mess privileges were out of reach of writers - while the son's guns each carries a commission, with Gerson included in senior staff and policy meetings.
But just as it's possible to be too detached from the process (as, arguably, my boss was) it's also possible to be too involved - and here is the second advantage these writers share with their boss: discipline. Every SOU runs the risk of becoming a bureaucratic grab bag of programs. Clinton, for example, twice ran over 9,000 words - whereas Bush managed to deliver a fairly significant message last year, four months after 9/11, in nearly half as many words.
The third advantage is as undeniable as it is unwelcome, and that, of course, is the context of tragedy and war. The immediate aftermath of the attacks inspired eloquence: "we meet in the middle hour of our grief"; defiance: "We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before"; and words to assure a shaken nation: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that G-d is not neutral between them."
The immediacy of our anguish and our fear inspired something in us too: the need to listen, and a willingness to believe. Sixteen months later, memories have faded and the sense of peril has worn off. But Bush retains another advantage, evidenced all too rarely in public and private life, and that is character. Plainly defined, it is the ability to keep a resolution long after the mood in which you made it has passed.
Last year, this time, the president promised "to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction." Critics have decried Bush's "rush to war," in hopes diverting the President's steady and deliberate tread. Others have pounced on the "axis of evil" as if the phrase itself were more disturbing than the reality it represents. I predict they will be disappointed tonight, as Bush brings the same moral gravity and sense of urgency to the podium that have propelled his speeches since this crisis began.
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