Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007
No-Whip: Tuesday's lame-duck State of the Union may not have done much for Bush's domestic agenda, but it was a boon for mine. My daughter is studying American government this year, so a few hours before the president's speech, I spoke to a gymnasium full of eighth graders about how State of the Union addresses work. We discussed the various SOTU rituals, from the sound of one party clapping to the mystery guests in the first lady's box. As an incentive to watch the speech, I promised to buy every student a Frappuccino if the president didn't name some American hero, like the subway Samaritan from New York.
At the time, that seemed like a safe bet, even in front of 63 Frappuccino-loving teenagers who weren't about to let me off the hook. But 40 minutes into Bush's speech, as he droned on about special advisory councils, I began to worry. Any president with so little interest in attracting support from the country or even his own party might dispense with other quaint democratic traditions, like showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind or showcasing heroes in the State of the Union.
Luckily, with time running out on his speech and his administration, Bush forgot that he's no Ronald Reagan and decided to embrace symbolic gestures with gusto. Suddenly, a Carteresque speech asking America to give bad news a chance began to sound like the spring lineup from Disney Pictures. Dikembe Mutombo, who rose from humble beginnings to stand 2 feet taller than the first lady of the United States. Julie Aigner-Clark, who made a fortune selling her toy company (to Disney!) and now makes videos warning kids about strangers—the perfect background to become Bush's next Homeland Security czar.
But Bush saved the best heroes for last. Sgt. Tommy Rieman, who earned a Silver Star in Iraq, and whose wounds sounded so extensive, it seemed a miracle that he could stand up. And of course, Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped onto the tracks to save a man from an oncoming train.
I don't know how the State of the Union fared with focus groups. But on my Frappu-meter, the last part of the speech was off the charts. Four heartwarming heroes in four minutes was more than enough to spare me from buying 63 $4 drinks. And by naming the subway Samaritan, Bush made me look a little like one of the eighth graders' favorite TV characters—the fake psychic on USA's *Psych.
Still, even someone with my psychic powers had to be surprised by the surge of heroes at the end of Bush's speech. According to a remarkable new interactive graphic from the New York Times, Bush hadn't used the word "hero" in a State of the Union since January 2002. On Tuesday, he called out the whole Fantastic Four.
Why the sudden outburst of heartwarming stories? Two reasons: First, after such a deflating speech, the president and his writers were desperate to end on a high note—or at least, higher than his 28 percent approval. The last time we saw such a parade of heroes in a State of the Union was 1995, when Clinton may have set the modern record with a closing flourish that singled out six. That year, we too were reeling from the loss of Congress and wanted to change a sour public mood. It's possible that Bush's speechwriters got the idea for multiple heroes from searching Clinton's 1995 speech for comeback clues.
More likely, the hero glut is just another symptom of a White House that has run out of good options and can't decide between them. A White House that is on its game makes choices; a struggling one runs in every direction at once, in hopes of finding something that will work. That may explain why Bush's entire speech resembled Noah's Ark, not just because it didn't try to stop rising sea levels, but because it offered two of everything—for every new applause line about finding common ground, an old standby to placate the conservative base.
You don't have to be a psychic to know the Bush White House is in desperate need of last-minute heroics. Yet while Wesley Autrey is every bit the "brave and humble man" Bush said, the subway Samaritan arrived too late: The train already flattened this president back in November. ... 12:41 P.M. (link)
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