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Presidential Greatest Hits 

by Robert Herold


Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike gave President Bush high marks for his State of the Union speech. In an uncustomary tip of the hat to presentation, conservative columnist and Brit wordsmith Andrew Sullivan called Bush's speech "eloquent." Another thoughtful conservative, David Brooks, credits the President with saying just what the country needed to hear. Nor did we hear the expected criticism from the likes of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. While differing on the domestic and economic recovery agendas, Gephardt had praise for much of what the President had to say. Some did express concern over Bush's explicit mention of the "evil regimes," but even here the President no doubt hit on a responsive chord: The war on terrorism is not over, and we know where the next targets may well be.


Having granted Bush much-deserved praise, might we not go overboard in our gushing? While well delivered, the speech struck me as unoriginal. I may be a minority of one, but I heard no singularly perceptive lines to rival Eisenhower's warnings about the emergent "military-industrial complex." Nor did the speech have the coherent ring of clarity that defined almost every speech Kennedy gave. More fundamentally, I found myself struggling to hear the real George W. Bush come through. His words and presentation incorporated snippets of themes that we have heard over the years from so many former White House occupants. The address, I thought, seemed cut-and-pasted. (Still, no doubt, the snippets are an improvement over Clinton's self-serving and endless laundry lists.)


Bush opened with a straightforward, Trumanesque acknowledgment that the country was at war and in recession. No sugar coating there. But then he shifted directions and went into pep talk mode. Not anything so eloquent as FDR's famous "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but, in his down-home way, close. For certain we heard nothing about malaise in the land.


Then came shades of John Kennedy, in Bush's call for more civic involvement.


Then the admonitions and challenges. He asked for bipartisanship and even gave a nod to Ted Kennedy who, we presume, was acknowledged because at least on a symbolic level, Kennedy represents the exact opposite end of the political spectrum. "My friend, Ted Kennedy," (pan the camera) was the way Bush made mention, as if to say, if I can work with the likes of Ted, then I can work with everyone, and everyone can work with me.


We then heard echoes of Jack Kennedy, who was himself echoing Woodrow Wilson. Kennedy admonished Americans to go anywhere and to pay any price for freedom. Bush urges Americans to pay any price to make the world safe from terrorism. Wilson merely wanted to make the world safe for democracy.


Wilson, we recall, failed.


Then came the voice of Ronald Reagan, who first introduced "evil" into the lexicon or realpolitik.


Bush's words had a Churchillian ring at times -- but he never went all the way down that path, never saying that all he had to offer us was "blood, toil, tears and sweat," as Churchill declared in England's darkest hour.


Surprisingly, Churchill's gloomy truth was pushed aside by the ghost of LBJ. I refer to the President's call for more spending, both for national security and even some domestic programs -- it seemed right out of the earlier Texan's playbook. Guns and butter -- is that what Bush recommends? All this without new taxes? We will pay for both national security needs as well as domestic needs? And we heard no mention of the Republican mantra: no deficit spending. Instead, the President did his own version of Alfred E. Newman. What, me worry? After inheriting a hefty surplus, he has watched it all but evaporate in a year, leaving campaign issues like prescription drug benefits and social security reform untouchable. But we didn't hear much about the incredible vanishing surplus.


I was also struck by the many loose ends created by the speech. Perhaps most serious was Bush's use of Reagan's "evil" line. He used it to throw down several gauntlets. But, having done so, just exactly what action does he propose to take towards Iraq, Iran and North Korea? Indeed, only a few days after naming names, the administration retreated from the President's harsh words. We now hear that they will continue to talk and work with both Iran and North Korea.


And speaking of issues that are of strategic importance, is there anyone who any longer doubts that, to be strategically effective, our anti-terror campaign must result in alternative energy sources to foreign oil, especially of the Arab variety? While he mentions the problem, Bush knows that neither the oil industry nor the American automobile industry (which makes bigger gas guzzlers every year) are really all that supportive of serious efforts to develop alternative sources of energy. Another loose end.


As I listened to all those distant voices and contemplated the loose ends, I came away puzzled -- even concerned. What if Churchill was right to expect an evenly shared sacrifice of his people? In not warning that "blood, toil, tears and sweat" await, perhaps Bush coddled us at the wrong time.

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