The state of our union is … unmentionable.

Analysis of breaking news events.
Jan. 29 2003 12:40 AM

A Reveille, Not a Record

The state of our union is … unmentionable.

If you went to the refrigerator during the first three minutes of President Bush's State of the Union address, you missed the part where he discussed the state of the union. After a few words about his record on the economy, education, corporate responsibility, and homeland security, Bush spent the rest of the hour outlining plans and promises. It was the kind of speech a president gives when he's been in office two weeks, not two years.

Why didn't Bush talk about the state of the union? Because the state of the union is nothing to talk about. The stock market is in the toilet. The economy is going nowhere. Unemployment is up. The deficit is out of control. Remember those State of the Union speeches Bill Clinton gave? The guy couldn't stop quoting happy numbers. That's one problem Bush doesn't have.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

As a president and orator, Bush has two great strengths: moral clarity and resolve. To the Iraqi people, he declared, "Your enemy is not surrounding your country; your enemy is ruling your country." To anti-war relativists, he observed of Saddam Hussein's atrocities, "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning." To the country and the world, he vowed: "Free people will set the course of history. … The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others. … We will prevail." When Bush talks like that, he doesn't just send chills down people's spines. He puts steel in them.

That's the good news. The bad news is the way Bush ducked the bad news.

In discussing foreign policy, Bush laid out a tough standard: "America's purpose is more than to follow a process. It is to achieve a result." The result to be achieved was "the end of terrible threats to the civilized world." By that standard, he suggested, the U.N. inspection process was failing. To prove that this process was succeeding, said Bush, Saddam would have to give "evidence" of progress in disarmament. From the absence of such evidence, Bush concluded that Saddam "has much to hide."

By that standard, Bush, too, has failed. The state of the union isn't a process. It's a result. Yet in the few minutes Bush spent on what he had "accomplished," he spoke of processes, not results. "To lift the standards of our public schools, we achieved historic education reform," he said. "To protect our country, we reorganized our government. ... To bring our economy out of recession, we delivered the largest tax relief in a generation. To insist on integrity in American business, we passed tough reforms. … Some might call this a good record. I call it a good start."

Record? That isn't a record. It's an agenda. An agenda is the measures you enact: education reform, a Homeland Security department, tax relief, corporate oversight reform. A record is what those measures are supposed to accomplish: lifting public schools, protecting the country, ending the recession, improving corporate integrity. By inserting these hypothetical achievements at the beginning of each sentence about his agenda, Bush made them sound real. They aren't. His education bill remains unfunded. The corporate reforms he signed were watered down. The first Secretary of Homeland Security was sworn in four days ago. And the economy is still a wreck.

What Bush said of Saddam's disarmament record could equally be said of Bush's domestic record. He has given no evidence of progress. He must have much to hide.

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