The speech was two-thirds finished and President Bush had yet to even say the word "Iraq."
Finally, 47 minutes into it, Bush began laying out the argument that the electorate and the rest of the world had been waiting for -- why he seems to be about to send Americans' parents, children, spouses, siblings and friends into harm's way to unseat Saddam Hussein.
He laid out some justification for such a war, with the righteous determination that the U.S. would go it alone if need be -- "free people will set the course of history" -- and the attempt at reassuring words that "we are winning" the war on terrorism and "we will prevail" in Iraq. There was notably less talk of Saddam Hussein's nuclear threat than in the past -- but still plenty to scare the bejesus out of most Americans. Toward the end of the speech, Bush even gave the day when the countdown would begin: On Feb. 5, Bush said, the U.S. will officially pressure the United Nations Security Council "to consider the facts of Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world."
But before this point, the speech, Bush's second State of the Union address, had been an odd and not entirely successful one. The self-regarded compassionate conservative hopped back and forth from proposing hydrogen cars to banning so-called partial birth abortions, from trying to end AIDS in Africa to slamming trial lawyers. It was less a negotiation down the middle of the road than a hopscotch from bleeding-heart liberal to bedrock conservative.
Bush delivered almost two different speeches -- one incoherent, tax-cut-and-spend domestic laundry list glued to a firm, strong assertion of foreign policy that made it clear that the U.S. is indeed about to go to war.
Despite delivering the speech's staple ("Our union is strong") hapless Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., actually might have got it right the day before when he proclaimed, "The state of our union today is anxious." A USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll indicated that only 49 percent of those polled agree that Bush White House policies "will move the country in the right direction," down precipitously from 73 percent a year ago. Back then, 19 percent said Bush's policies were taking the country in the wrong direction; that number is 43 percent today.
With shaken investor confidence and 6 percent unemployment, it remains unclear that Bush's $674 billion tax cut proposal and plans to attack Iraq are what the nation is looking for. Bush needed to step up tonight and reassure everyone that he knew what he was doing. It's unclear that he accomplished that.
But thankfully for Bush, his opponents -- theoretically, at least -- come from the Democratic Party, an organization maybe best captured late in the speech when a camera caught Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who at least appeared to be in deep slumber, while his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., wiped his nose with his hand.
After the speech, Kennedy the Elder called for a do-over, demanding a new vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq since "the world has changed."
With the possible exception of the Washington Generals, is there any group less inspiring than the Democrats? Has Rove slipped saltpeter into their Yoohoos? I'm not just talking about the fact that Daschle let the brigands at the Wall Street Journal and Family Research Council outlap him on outrage at Trent Lott's longing for Dixie. More specifically, who was the Einstein who brainstormed Washington Gov. Gary Locke as the designated Democratic rebutter? Locke -- chosen at least in part because he's chairman of the Democratic Governor's Association -- currently has 30 percent approval ratings in his own state. The only thing he said in his astoundingly unimpressive response that I can even recall -- and I'm writing this two seconds after he finished -- is the same sad refrain beginning "Make no mistake: Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant, BUT ..." Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
It remains immensely telling that the most powerful critiques of Bush policies came in recent days from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who is said to have expressed doubts about Bush's plan to eliminate the tax on dividends, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf -- you might remember him from the original cast recording -- who told the Washington Post that "before I can just stand up and say, 'Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we need to invade Iraq,' I guess I would like to have better information. I think it is very important for us to wait and see what the inspectors come up with, and hopefully they come up with something conclusive."
Satisfying that cat's curiosity seemed Bush's greatest need Tuesday night, and he presented this initial argument well, if not completely sealing the deal. Then again, this was just the beginning of the rollout of the "product" White House chief of staff Andrew Card alluded to last summer; Bush will likely speak again about the matter, and soon, and Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that next week he would present "several pieces of information which come from the work of our intelligence that show Iraq maintains prohibited weapons." Already, Powell has morphed from dove to hawk, an official signal that the administration has reached the end of its rope.
But before he got to Iraq, Bush -- always mindful not to repeat the sins of the father -- outlined something of a domestic agenda.
Much of it was traditional if inconsequential. He assailed the lack of "spending discipline in Washington, D.C.," though neither he nor the drunken sailors from both parties applauding along have stepped an inch toward doing anything about that.
Bush's chief economic argument -- "I ask you to end the unfair double taxation of dividends" -- seemed rather unconvincing. He gave a minor look at a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, but his primary prescription for "quality, affordable health [sic] for all Americans" must have enraged presidential wannabe/former trial lawyer Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.: medical malpractice reform, to solve "the constant threat that physicians and hospitals will be unfairly sued."
Then there was the reach for the soccer moms, the suburban voters who may be starting to cave to the pleas of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., whose bill to improve the fuel efficiency of SUVs was shanked by an effective coalition of union-owned Democrats and corporate America-owned Republicans, despite the moderate duo's new argument that reducing our dependence on our Arab "allies" could only be a good thing.
"Tonight I am proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles," the former Texas oil man said, not quite a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, since it actually hurts no corporation at all, but still, at least he could promise "to make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy." Our air presumably will get a lot dirtier first: No hydrogen cars are likely to make it on the road in the next decade, and Bush is no fan of stricter fuel-efficiency standards.
As always, in the domestic section of his address, Bush seemed most sincere when talking about faith and charity, calling for passage of the faith-based initiative and his Citizen Service, urging for mentoring programs for children with parents in prison.
If a conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged, it may be that a compassionate conservative is a conservative who's had a drug or alcohol problem. Speaking about those suffering from drug addiction, Bush spoke movingly, saying, "Tonight, let us bring to all Americans who struggle with drug addiction this message of hope: The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you."
Then came a couple moments of compassion for the suspicious folk reading the speech with the help of television subtitles -- whether it's Al Jazeera or Das German TV.
First came the reminder of how often other countries hold out their hands, that is, when they're not giving us the finger. "Across the earth, America is feeding the hungry," Bush said. "More than 60 percent of international food aid comes as a gift from the people of the United States." Then he introduced the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa [cut to: Laura Bush's surprise balcony guest, a clapping Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, director of the Joint Clinical Research Center in Uganda. See! Republicans aren't racist!]
And then out came the cowboy.
True, there were no mentions of capturing Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Of course, there were no mentions of bin Laden at all. But an update on the war on terror, which Bush (not mentioning Bali or Kenya or Kuwait) insisted that "WE. ARE. WINNING" -- a real potential "READ. MY. LIPS" moment TV networks and opportunistic Democrats will run endlessly should another terrorist tragedy occur.
To spell out the proof of our success, Bush listed some captured enemy operatives. Osama bin Laden? Mullah Mohammed Omar? Ayman Al Zawahiri? Ummm ... no. None of the ones Bush listed were high enough in the hierarchy for you to have ever heard of them. So he referred to them in a "some guy" kind of way.
"They include a man who directed logistics and funding for the Sept. 11 attacks," Bush said. "The chief of al-Qaida operations in the Persian Gulf who planned the bombings of our embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole. An al-Qaida operations chief from Southeast Asia. A former director of al-Qaida's training camps in Afghanistan. A key al-Qaida operative in Europe. And a major al-Qaida leader in Yemen."
Oh, right. Those guys. Sure.
More than 3,000 terrorists have been arrested all over the world, he said, and "many others have met a different fate," Bush said. "Put it this way: They are no longer a problem for the United States and our friends and allies."
[Cue "High Plains Drifter" whistle.]
Earlier in the evening, Bush had crowed about how he had "reorganized our government and created the Department of Homeland Security," making no mention of his fervent opposition to the department until a few months before the 2002 midterm elections. Now he plans for Project Bioshield, a $6 billion program to "make available effective vaccines and treatments against agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, Ebola, and plague."
A great idea, and one that surely has made sense ever since fall 2001, when Daschle, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather got those love letters to Allah sealed with an anthrax kiss, but again, better late than never. Bush also announced a Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a place for the CIA, FBI and Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to share information. Again -- we're just getting to this now?
"Whatever the duration of this struggle, and whatever the difficulties, we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men," he said. "Free people will set the course of history." The biggest threat in the war on terror, the president said, is rogue nations seeking Noo-Kew-Lar, chemical and biological weapons.
"All free nations have a stake in preventing sudden and catastrophic attack," Bush said. Other countries are being asked to join up, some are doing so. "Yet the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others," Bush underlined. "Whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people."
With a nod to questions as to why Iraq is any more dangerous than any of her sisters on the axis of evil, Bush said that "different threats require different strategies." The U.S. is seeking revolution from within Iran. In North Korea (cut to: a very skeptical looking Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has all but called Bush a pussy on his handling of this crisis), the U.S. is working with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to find a peaceful solution.
And lest we have an Arabic Kim Jong Il someday, action, Bush said, is needed in Iraq.
Bush then spelled out the threat. "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option," he said. Indeed, Hussein and his minions have attacked Iraq's own citizens, tortured the children of those he wanted to give up information, tortured folk by dripping acid on skin, with electric shock, hot irons, cutting out tongues and rape.
Answering those who found the born-again president's hyperbolic depiction of his enemies a bit much, Bush commented, "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning."
Interestingly, though the administration has scared the masses in the past with talk of a nuke-happy Hussein -- in his September 2002 address to the U.N., Bush spelled out some of the same evidence he presented tonight, saying that the "first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one" -- tonight Bush backed off that a bit. No doubt this decision was made in light of Monday's report by Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who stated that his organization had "found no evidence that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapon program since the elimination of the program in the 1990s."
But the international types had also brought good news to the administration hawks; that same day, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix -- whom Bushies had previously regarded as sort of a Norwegian Dr. Phil -- slammed Iraq for not having accepted "the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and live in peace." Blix also noted that despite Iraq's protests to the contrary, inspectors had found "indications" that Iraq had biological weapons containing VX, a deadly nerve agent.
But Bush went into much greater, dramatic detail: U.N. arms inspectors concluded that Hussein had the ingredients to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax, more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agents, and more than 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Hussein hasn't accounted for these, and "inspectors recently turned up 16 of [the 30,000 munitions], despite Iraq's recent declaration denying their existence."
And on and on -- mobile biological weapons labs, attempts to purchase uranium from Africa, Iraqi security personnel hiding information and materials, U.N. U-2 surveillance flights blocked, scientists prevented from speaking to inspectors, their families threatened.
"The dictator of Iraq is not disarming," Bush said. "To the contrary, he is deceiving."
Pre-Sept. 11, Bush said, such things might be tolerated. But in the New Normal, apathy isn't an option. "It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known," he said.
(Bush was only repeating here what the Iraqis themselves have said, according to press reports. According to a Kuwaiti newspaper story from last summer, in a June 2002 meeting among Hussein, his two sons and other members of his inner circle of advisors, Ali Hasan al-Majid, a Saddam cousin who possesses a diabolical expertise in chemical warfare, asked "has the time not come to take the fight to their own homes in America? They wanted this to be a war on all fronts, so let it be a war on all fronts and using all weapons and means." Another referred to Iraqis becoming "human bombs in the thousands, willing to blow up America in particular," and yet another suggested that "If bin Laden truly did carry out the September attacks as they claim, then as Allah is my witness, we will prove to them that what happened in September is a picnic compared to the wrath of Saddam Hussein.")
Thus, promised Bush -- though he didn't address the concern that attacking Iraq might exacerbate, rather than reduce, the chance of Iraqi retaliation -- "We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes."
A day that will definitely come, however, is Feb. 5, when the U.S. will ask the U.N. Security Council to move on all this.
And with that, Bush thanked the country and God, shook the hands of the old fat white men behind him, and went home to, presumably, sleep soundly.
I'm glad someone is.