"We will be showing him the way"

The president's feel-good speech almost made our disagreements disappear. Jim Webb brought them back.

Published January 24, 2007 2:38PM (EST)

Having spent the last couple of years staring into the president's State of the Union address as if it were a lab animal to be dissected, we decided to take in last night's speech more like a lot of our fellow citizens do. We checked in early for the red-carpet pageantry -- Why did only four Supreme Court justices show? What's Dennis Kucinich saying to the president? -- then half-watched the speech while cooking dinner for the kids.

How did it look from the kitchen?

The president seemed like the nice guy a certain number of voters always seem to think he is. The bit about "Madame Speaker" seemed genuine, at least so long as you forgot that he used to say that the terrorists would win if the Democrats took control of Congress. Who couldn't be heartened by the prospect that the president wants to work with Congress on balancing the budget, making healthcare more affordable and addressing climate change -- at least until you remember that Bush didn't accomplish much on any of those fronts when his Republicans controlled Congress. As for the war? Nobody wants another 9/11; everybody thinks it's a good idea to break up terror plots -- the real ones, anyway; and we all think it would be terrible to "fail" in Iraq. The president was just talking good sense.

Or so it seemed. The Iraq portion of Bush's speech was written carefully to avoid what would have been 51-49 applause lines in days gone by. Where was "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down"? Where was "We will stay the course until the job is done"? The speechwriters did everything they could to avoid the appearance of a president virtually alone in his views on the war. Gone was the defiant if beaten president we saw a couple of weeks ago when Bush unveiled his "new way forward." In his place was somber, serious Bush, a guy who says that "nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq, and to spare the American people from this danger," but who also says that he respects those who may disagree with him about how to do it.

As a friend wrote to us last night, Bush's speech put most of our disagreements behind a "gauzy bipartisan drape of good feeling," and it was possible for a moment to think they had disappeared entirely.

But it was just a moment, and by the time the president had left the Capitol and we'd headed out on an errand, that moment had passed. We can thank the wonders of human memory for that -- Bush has spent six years not being the man he was last night -- but we can also thank Jim Webb.

We caught the Democratic response to Bush's speech on the car radio last night, and we just watched it this morning on the Web. The responder doesn't get any of the pomp the president enjoys -- remember poor Tim Kaine last year -- but Webb didn't need it. Gently at first and then with slow, seething anger, the new senator from Virginia tore down the curtain that Bush had tried so hard to hang. "Let me say simply," Webb said at the beginning of a speech he "pretty much" wrote himself, and then he spoke about as simply as one could: The Democrats "hope that the president is serious" about improving education and healthcare and addressing climate change, Webb said, but we've heard much of this before. And New Orleans? Did anyone mention New Orleans? The president didn't.

Webb dutifully made his way through a discussion of Bush's rich-getting-richer economy. He said that "it's almost as if we're living in two countries," and that the middle class -- "our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future" -- is losing ground fast. He ticked off the Democrats' first-100-hours accomplishments, not so much as a boast but as a way to underscore the fact that Bush's Republicans had six long years to do the things that the Democrats managed to pull off, at least in the House, in a matter of days.

That was all prelude; for Webb even more than most of us, the real issue is Iraq. He has a son serving there. And while Webb didn't wear his son's old boots last night, as he did during his campaign against George Allen, he quietly made it clear to anyone who didn't know that he has walked in those shoes before. He showed a photograph of his father as a young Air Force captain. He mentioned, almost in passing, that he'd served as a Marine in Vietnam. He acknowledged his son. Then he got to the heart of the matter.

"Like so many other Americans, today and throughout our history, we serve and have served, not for political reasons but because we love our country," Webb said. "On the political issues -- those matters of war and peace, and in some cases of life and death -- we trusted the judgment of our national leaders. We hoped that they would be right, that they would measure with accuracy the value of our lives against the enormity of the national interest that might call upon us to go into harm's way.

"We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it."

Bush, Webb said, hasn't lived up to his side of that bargain.

"The president took us into this war recklessly," he said. "He disregarded warnings from the national security advisor during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the Army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable -- and predicted -- disarray that has followed. The war's costs to our nation have been staggering: financially, the damage to our reputation around the world, the lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism, and especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

"The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought," he said. "Nor does the majority of our military."

Webb said that we need a "new direction" in Iraq -- "not one step back from the war against international terrorism," but "an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq." Webb said Democrats hope that Bush will lead the country into that new direction. "If he does, we will join him," he said. "If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

We suspect that the Democrats' actions will never match the resolve of Webb's words. But last night was a time for words, not actions. In getting the last one, Webb reminded us all of everything the president would have had us forget.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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