The nation survived Clinton’s demeaning of the presidency. President George W. Bush has survived the media’s demeaning of his intellect. President #43 could have gone down in the history books as a bland shadow of Reagan a steadfast conservative, but without Reagan’s rhetorical magic. Instead, 9-11 and people like Saddam have given the Bush era an aura of gravitas and Bush’s response has lifted him above the level of president to the stature of statesman. In his State of the Union address last night, Bush erased the doubts about his leadership from the minds of all but the most die-hard partisans.
From the moment he entered the legislative chamber, he conveyed the seriousness of this moment in time. Gone was the smirk he sometimes wears that signals his nervousness or self-consciousness. There was no tentativeness in his stride; his jaw was set, his expression was somber. His resolve was palpable not just in his demeanor, but also in the tenseness of First Lady Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and House Leader Dennis Hastert.
As the president went through the litany of domestic policy initiatives and spoke of both duty and opportunities, of days of promise and times of reckoning, the chamber was sharply divided by political party. Republicans cheered; Democrats sneered. Democratic leaders, at first, wore scornful, bored or patronizingly amused expressions. When the cameras panned those same faces as the speech moved to “compassionate conservative” initiatives, viewers could almost see defeat in their expressions as they realized that the State of the Union address would not give them an opening for political advantage. As the speech progressed on to national security concerns, the force of the president’s revelations gripped the opposition party, too.
The pivotal moment of the speech was when the president spoke directly to the American troops in the Middle East as the television cameras showed them gathered around to hear the president’s address. President Bush said what we all know that the success of our cause depends on them. He added, “Your training has prepared you. Your honor will guide you. You believe in America and America believes in you.”
The nation saw a president struggling with his emotions and caught a glimpse of the terrible burden and responsibility on the shoulders of the commander-in-chief. He spoke movingly of the risks and sufferings of war and of the days of mourning that inevitably come. My nine-year-old granddaughter, sitting across the room, leaned forward and said with awe, “He is going to cry!” Struggling with my own tears, I said to her, “Remember this night, Hannah, because you’ll probably never hear another speech in your lifetime that will have more impact on our country.”
The nation saw George W. Bush move from partisanship to statesmanship in the course of that one-hour speech an event that required him to rally the whole nation, including many in his own party. He said that the “call of history” had come to the right country. Many who heard his address last night would add that the burden of the response to that call came to the right man. He bluntly acknowledged that many people were tired of news about the war on terror, but, he said, “There is never a day when I do not learn of another threat, or receive reports of operations in progress or give an order in this global war against a scattered network of killers.” He added, “We will not ‘pass today’s problems along’ to future congresses, peoples or presidents.”
News harridan, Helen Thomas, had earlier declared that Bush was the “worst president in America history” in part because she believed he was lying about Saddam’s threat to the United States. Today, Ms. Thomas must eat those words. The case laid out by the President is compelling even chilling in its precise enumeration of the ways that Saddam has accumulated weapons and means of mass destruction and the extent of evil that he is capable of perpetrating against the world, including unspeakable horrors inflicted on his own nation and people.
At the outset, the president set the tone for his remarks by talking about the “decisive days that lie ahead” and the “grave consequences” that are possible. He assured the lawmakers and watching public, “We will work for a prosperity that is broadly shared, and we will answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people.” He declared, “Our faith is sure, our resolve is firm and our union strong.”
The president enumerated the many threats to the United States and the world from what he called “outlaw regimes.” His chilling summary was: “It will take one vial, one canister, one crate shipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.” The president said that Saddam clearly “has much to hide” and that the purpose of his arsenal is to “dominate, intimidate or attack.” The president’s straight talk produced unprecedented quiet and attentiveness among the legislators and other guests. He talked at length about the AIDS crisis in Africa. He spoke of the U.S. efforts against the terrorists telling where various ones were caught and where they are being held. Others, he declared, have “met a different fate.” He elaborated with steely enunciation, “Let’s put it this way, they are no longer a threat.” The president warned, “The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.” He added, “America and the world will not be blackmailed.”
The litany of threats was balanced by a strong, steady declaration of America’s intent. “Free people,” the president said, “will set the course of history.” He made it clear the United States will do everything in its power to make sure that the threatened “day of horror” never comes.
Commentators talked about an address that was “gripping” and a presentation that “lacked eloquence, but had force.” Perhaps the most telling response to the speech was from Juan Williams, liberal columnist and Fox News Commentator. Williams said, “Here was a human being who cared deeply. I hadn’t expected that and was touched by it.” I listened with my heart after Juan’s remark and I think that I heard a collective sigh of relief from the nation “Thank you, God, for a president whom all Americans can respect, even when their politics differ. That’s statesmanship and it’s welcomed especially at this pivotal and decisive moment in time.
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Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, presidential speechwriter for president George H.W. Bush, is a recognized authority on presidential communications and has written extensively on presidential debates and other presidential addresses. She is Senior Fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, A Center for Studies in Women’s Issues.