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Notes on the State of George W. Bush’s Union


President Bush’s State of the Union address, delivered to a packed joint session of Congress was a huge success, if the applause of sycophants is any measure. As a measure of visionary leadership, however, I found it somewhat lacking.

No less than 77 outbursts of “spontaneous” applause were counted by C-SPAN’s Susan Swain, who, not being an employee of any “real” news channel, was not otherwise occupied working up spin on words that should be easily understood by even the most publicly educated. I’d like to mention here that C-SPAN, the only channel that had the courage to avoid talking during Bush’s speech, had the best video quality—clear, with colors properly balanced and no inherently offensive graphics, which are in this case insulting to the American people for two reasons: 1) The banners and crawlers, born on a day of real crisis and complication, perhaps the last day on which “breaking news” actually broke in real time, implied that people needed a speech already written for a TV audience (the transcript of which will be in every newspaper on Jan. 29) simplified even further, like tap water on an IV drip. 2) They suggest that the American pe! ople lack the attention span to sit through the most important hour of television all year, even though most other options were pre-empted.

Some people will find nothing good about the SOTU, and others will find nothing bad, but both are wrong. My biggest critique is the absence of words on education, but given that the most articulate critics of his war plans come from within academia, it’s almost understandable. Still, though, he should have said that education provides America’s children with the only legal means to make the most money possible, which is supposedly the point of capitalism, as well as the intellectual tools to deal with an unknown future.

There were elements of the speech that I wasn’t expecting, and those were my favorite parts: his pledge of $1.2 billion for hydrogen fuel research (perhaps he’s read Jeremy Rifkin’s The Hydrogen Economy); $400 million to start a mentoring program for the adolescent children of prisoners (some of which will be spent on kids whose parents are in prison on nonviolent drug offenses); $15 billion over three years for an ambitious program to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa and to treat those already infected (so they can live long enough to die from famine or at the hands of warlords). Certainly he could be doing more in these areas, but he deserves credit for even mentioning these things at a time when his party, for all the lip-service it pays to Jesus, leans in an aggressively Darwinian direction when it comes to domestic policy.

The days of Bush being taunted as a poor orator by the media should be gone, because he managed to make even a cynical viewer like me pay attention to a speech that included nothing new in the crucial areas of war and the economy. Since he did not link these subjects in a way that seems obvious to me (but who am I, anyway?), I must assume that he has not reached a definite conclusion about how to proceed with either one.

The fact is, regardless of what he chooses to do to or about Iraq, the United States is indeed at war, a war against its own worst nature. Moral decay, economic stagnation, educational decline for all but an ever-shrinking number of the privileged and the relentlessly ambitious among us—these are the forces that conspire to undermine this country’s future. Those who seek to destroy America, the bin Ladens and the Ba’athists, like the Bolsheviks and the British before them, can only find victory against an already-weakened foe. The real threat to America in the 21st century cannot be stifled by embargoes or cruise missiles. Neither diplomacy nor death will stir its resolve, because they may not even know what they are doing. If America ever falls, whether it’s five years from now or 50, history will record that our end truly began on February 1, 1996, when the government began handing nominal control of the country’s tele-communicat! ions infrastructure to unaccountable systems of private power who have no stake in the future, and then removed the only barriers to fair and free competition between these systems that ever existed.

What the President should have done, in my opinion, was to turn our eyes away from distant lands and toward the nearest mirror. He should have told the American people that our strongest allies and our most lethal foes are We the People, ourselves, before all others, as the Founders intended. He should have taken aim at the corporations that stole from their shareholders and ran, thus undermining an economic structure whose greatest trials are yet to come, as well as those who everyday place profits above the health and security of Americans. He should have called out those nations who profess allegiance to us, yet coddle the terrorists within their borders.

He should have pointed to those Democrats who side with him against their instinct because it is politically expedient and said “You are worse than the aging hippies and their students, who march against war because they believe they are right. Your double-talk and parsed phrasings are the reason why the American people have declared you unfit to lead this nation. By taking a position of contradiction between your words and your actions, on matters of war and many others, you expose yourselves as being on the same moral plane as the Iraqi parliament.” He could have looked right at Lieberman and Clinton, seated behind the same Joint Chiefs who never rose to applaud the rhetoric of war, and said that “Your party will go as you go, for better or for worse.”

And then he should have turned to us, the people he is charged to lead, and told us that the quick-fixes, easy rides and simple solutions we’ve been trained to hold out for are fictions, no longer relevant to the increasingly complex times we live in, that now is the time for America to mobilize, neighborhood by neighborhood, household to household, in pursuit of a goal that can not be met by force of arms, nor by government handout, nor even by Executive demand: perfection, or as close as we can get. It would have been a great time to invoke the words of Edward Bernays, who helped Wilson turn the masses toward World War I: “We must regiment the public mind as an army regiments its bodies.” And he should have made such language retroactive. (Given the way those words are usually used, the Bernays family would like it.)

The silence heard from the marks at the Capitol would be drowned out by cheers from every home in America, and consensus would then be achieved, for war with Iraq or anything else the President was proposing. But as it stands, the Union is scant closer to real unity than it was a year ago, and the State of the Union remains as it was before Bush took office: in a word, precarious.

(Thank you, and God bless the United States of America.)

Shelton Hull can be reached at:


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