A Modest Proposal for Bush's State of the Union Address
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 29 2002 12:23 PM

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Greetings, David,

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On that rarest of days: a morning when the Post seems more het up about Enron than does the Times. Two front-page stories, and columns by Broder, Cohen, and Dionne. Broder picks up on your Theodore Roosevelt analogy. I've always been a huge TR fan; named a son after him, in fact—but I'm beginning to think that I was seduced by his fabulous American effusiveness and chose to ignore some of his more questionable policies. His trust-busting, for example, eventually slipped into statist corporatism—the notion that Big Business was good, if placed in a regulatory straitjacket by the feds. (Woodrow Wilson was less tolerant of Big than TR was, more intent on fostering competition.) And then there was Teddy's expansive, "white man's burden" notion of America's role in the world—a good thing when it came to settling a war between Russia and Japan, a bad thing when imposed on the Philippines (a mixed blessing when it involved the near-theft of territory from Colombia for the building of the Panama Canal). If you wonder why some people gag on the notion of "national greatness," it has everything to do with Rooseveltian arrogance—and the sense of national superiority that often accompanies it.

I don't gag on national greatness, but I prefer to define it less expansively, as John McCain sort of did during the 2000 campaign when he talked about the importance of "being part of something larger than yourself." It's easy to feel that way after an event like 9/11. The more difficult question is, how do you convince people that a certain selflessness is good for the soul during quieter times? Which brings us to the State of the Union speech tonight.

The Bushes are the third aristocratic American dynasty of the past hundred years. The other two—the Roosevelts, the Kennedys—embraced grand rhetorical words: honor, courage, vigor, destiny, sacrifice. The Bushes don't do that, which may be an honorable bit of familial modesty. Bush 43 has a terrific speechwriter in Mike Gerson, who has been able to infuse his boss's lack of pretense with a sense of grace and decency. But I've been disappointed by the president's reluctance to ask anything of us beyond the clarion call to go shopping. It would be nice if he gave the notion of "service and sacrifice" a test drive tonight—and I mean something more than just T-shirt and litter-bag voluntarism. A serious run at energy conservation might not be a bad idea. Here's a riskier one: He should speak directly to America's senior citizens—and its incipient codgers, we baby boomers—and tell them it's time to think of their grandchildren: Free prescription drugs should only be made available to those who can't afford them. He should tell the plutocrats to think of their grandchildren, too: Their tax cut should be applied to shoring up old-age entitlements. A modest proposal. What do you think?

Best,
Joe

P.S.: Mea culpa—I was a bit too frisky yesterday when I said that the Guantanamo prisoners should be interrogated "by any means necessary." They shouldn't be tortured. Also, the Republicans obviously aren't always "great" on foreign policy, but they are more sure-handed overseas than they are domestically.

Joe Klein is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.

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