Did I watch the wrong channel?

The media gushed over an "eloquent" and "passionate" State of the Union address many of us didn't see.

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 1, 2002 2:51AM (EST)

Am I watching the same George W. Bush as the rest of the media?

To read the New York Times, you'd think that Cicero himself had graced the House with his presence Tuesday night. Bush "appeared both vigorous and confident tonight; gone were the deep lines that marked his face during the first month after the attacks," gushed David E. Sanger. "More comfortable than ever in the formal setting of the House, he was mostly free of the verbal stumbles that sometimes mark his speech, and he struck tones of deep passion when he talked of the war, its victims and its effects on the national soul."

The Times' lead editorial was less effusive, but struck a similar Hail-to-the-Chief note. It said that Bush's "prosecution of the war against terror has given Americans a new appreciation for his character and confidence in his leadership" and hailed his speech as one "delivered with force and polish" and "plain-spoken eloquence."

The runner-up newspaper of record, the Washington Post, also ten-hutted to attention in its editorial, saluting "his well-delivered speech."

"To his credit, President Bush delivered a wartime address, an honest and sober account of the long road that still lies ahead in the war against international terror," the editorial enthused, somehow ignoring the glaringly obvious fact that Bush had every political reason in the world to give a wartime address -- we're at war -- as well as political motives to mostly ignore the sputtering economy and the swirling Enron scandal. After mildly criticizing Bush's failure to urge campaign finance reform, the Post concluded, "The president's emphasis, though, was in the right place -- in the need to stay the course on the war." Similar lofty praise sounded all over the airwaves, from Fox News (of course) to CNN to NPR.

Was I watching the wrong channel?

The Bush I saw delivered a minimally competent, workmanlike speech. There wasn't anything absolutely off about his delivery, but at times his emotions didn't quite seem to fit him, like a suit of clothes one size too large. He punctuated the solemn wartime address with his usual odd, slightly inappropriate smirks. And the speech was utterly devoid of eloquence -- unless, of course, the standard of comparison is Bush's previous utterances. In a classic example of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "defining deviancy down," as long as Bush doesn't spew mangled words like a Tourette's sufferer, he is apparently to be regarded as a kind of reincarnated combo pack of Demosthenes, Lincoln and Churchill.

I don't say this as one so opposed to Bush that I'm blinded to his occasional capacity for first-rate oratory. I thought -- and wrote in these pages -- that Bush's acclaimed speech after Sept. 11 was masterful. But to find "plain-spoken eloquence" and "deep passion" in Tuesday night's C-plus address, you'd have to be lightheaded from standing on a 10,000-foot stack of printed copies of "God Bless America."

Which, I suspect, is more or less what happened. Both the Times and the Post have been sharply -- at times harshly -- critical of Bush. (And, to be fair, the Times' post-speech editorial took Bush to task for his economic proposals.) But at Big National Moments like the State of the Union address, complete with Congress, the black-robed Supreme Court, assembled dignitaries, the announcement of "the President of the United States," patriotic hoopla and a general aura of national dignity, the big papers suddenly recollect that they are not just yapping hounds biting at the president's heels but quasi-official Voices of America.

And so, just for the occasion, they furtively slip on their Fox News flags and join together to maintain the fiction that a man they regarded as a hopeless lightweight a few months ago has suddenly become a wise and respected wartime leader, shepherding the country through dangerous terrorist waters to safety. In fact, they were so busy hailing the chief, that they completely missed the fact that with his speech Bush completely changed, and dangerously expanded, the definition of the "war on terrorism," with his bellicose rhetoric about and implicit threats against Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Finally, there is the rally-round-the-flag-boys element, the "stop bitching -- don't you know there's a war going on?" attitude that has kept Bush's poll ratings sky-high -- and kept journalists dutifully compliant. Television journalism has long been vulnerable to the siren song of mass opinion -- the rise of unabashedly patriotic news channels like Fox has put economic pressure on it to pull the wax out of its ears. And print media isn't immune, either. Since Sept. 11, it has become almost reflexive to praise anything and everything that falls under the rubric of the "war on terrorism."

In this time of national crisis, Americans should remember that Bush already benefited from enough grade inflation at Harvard and Yale. As we move forward into a future fraught with challenges, yet also opportunities, it's time to call a C a C!

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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George W. Bush State Of The Union Terrorism