Politics February 2006

Post Mortem: State of the Union

Bush's 2006 State of the Union address, annotated by The Atlantic's James Fallows

[Executive-summary version of the commentary ahead:]

• As a matter of rhetoric and political positioning, this was an effective speech. Love him or hate him, George W. Bush has become better and better as a formal orator. Does he write this stuff himself? Of course not. Does he even come up with the ideas? It doesn't matter. A president should be judged on the performance of the whole operation he oversees. And while that standard might not reflect so well on the President when it comes to, say, the response to Hurricane Katrina or the management of post-war Iraq, his effectiveness in presenting political arguments can't be denied. One way or another his team has learned how to create effective big-occasion speeches.

• As a matter of rhetoric and political positioning, the speech would have been twice as good if it were two-thirds as long. Every State of the Union speech goes through the same heartbreaking cycle. First, an Administration spokesman says that "this time" things will be different. The speech will be short, focused, "thematic"—above all, not a "laundry list," the inevitable cliché to describe a long categorization of specifics. Then, the entire federal government goes to work, begging for the sentence (which becomes the paragraph) about this or that urgent priority. Finally we have a result like last night's speech—a focused, thematic speech about foreign policy and national security, followed by another entire speech in classic laundry-list form about domestic projects.

• The most surprising thing about the first two thirds of the speech is how closely it resembled President Bush's second inaugural address—the one last year with the sweeping Woodrow Wilson-like promises to democratize the world. Since last fall, when the Administration launched its "how to think about Iraq" offensive, there had been less of this very ambitious, who-cares-about-immediate-obstacles talk. Instead we heard that progress was slow, that there had been setbacks, that mistakes had been made. (Historical note: "Mistakes have been made" was Richard Nixon's non-apologetic apology near the end of the Watergate debacle. Its power is the passive-voice construction, which admits an error without identifying the guilty party. Ever since then it's been DC shorthand for the way a politician squirms out of an embarrassing situation. The one president who really couldn't get away with this construction was Bill Clinton when it came to Monica Lewinsky. "Mistakes were made involving that woman, Ms. Lewinsky ... ")

My guess is that George Bush's suddenly-revived Wilsonian tone reflects his Administration's long-standing belief that it does best when playing offense. Apologize for the NSA program, or try to explain it away? Hell no! Make the people who question it apologize for their laxness about American security!

Now, the details. Bear in mind that everything that follows concerns the performance-art aspects of the President's speech, not the underlying policy. For more about the substance of the Administration's economic policy, please see this (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200507/fallows.) For more about Iraq policy, please see this (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200401/fallows) And for more about the war on terror in general, please see this (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200410/fallows) and this (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200501/fallows.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. Mr. Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, members of the Supreme Court and diplomatic corps, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:

Today our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream. Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King. [Improvised introduction, since Mrs. King had died on the morning of the speech, and a skillful touching of two bases at once. By mentioning Coretta Scott King in his first moments on the stage, the President preempts criticism about his "insensitivity" to concerns of black America. And with the reference to the "glad reunion" with her husband in heaven, he deploys one of his most reliable rhetoric techniques. He uses terms that members of the "Faith Community" among his audience will instantly recognize and appreciate, but that other listeners won't necessarily notice or take offense at. If he'd used some more obvious language—"we are grateful that Jesus is now taking her into His bosom"—he'd create as much resistance as support. Phrases like "glad reunion," or "finishing well" at the end of the speech, help him without hurting.]

Every time I'm invited to this rostrum, I'm humbled by the privilege, and mindful of the history we've seen together. We have gathered under this Capitol dome in moments of national mourning and national achievement. [Reminder: most of the times I've come to speak to both Houses of Congress, I have been a wartime President declaring our resolve after 9/11 and preparing us for war.]

We have served America through one of the most consequential periods of our history—and it has been my honor to serve with you. [Here begins the Uriah Heep section of the speech: an appeal to the bipartisan "what's best for America" spirit, from a modest leader humbled by his responsibilities. This initial pose helps set up later parts of the speech, in which he asserts the sweeping and intrinsic powers of the presidency, and sticks a shiv in the Democrats for their weakness and irresponsibility.] In a system of two parties, two chambers, and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone, and our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of goodwill and respect for one another—and I will do my part. [Here endeth the words of Uriah Heep.]

Tonight the state of our Union is strong—and together we will make it stronger. [Now here is a surprise! The sentence containing the thought, "The State of the Union is XXXX" is always one of the most labored-over parts of a speech. Usually it has some kind of artful tied-to-the-times way of saying, "The State of the Union is strong." This is as simple and understated a way of making the point as we've seen in many years. It's the first time in my memory that the sentence did not serve as an applause line—the President just rushed through it, and there seemed to be no obvious demand for applause from the floor.]

In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country. We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom—or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. [Ah! Our old friend, that staple of political rhetoric, the False Choice. "We can move forward in confidence, or we can slink back in cowardice. We can embrace the challenges of the future or cling to the myths of the past." You can write this stuff virtually as fast as you can type, and while it never actually makes logical sense if examined, political rhetoric could hardly exist without it. Certainly this paragraph could not.] We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy—or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting—yet it ends in danger and decline. The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership—so the United States of America will continue to lead. [You can see the logical gears grinding here: the dependable "False Choice" passage sets up the conclusion: "America must lead!" And on that framework the rest of the speech can be attached and arranged. We must lead toward democracy; we must lead in open trade; we must lead in competitiveness; etc etc etc]

Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal—we seek the end of tyranny in our world. [Whoa! This takes us right back to the Second Inaugural Address.] Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. [Raising, and attempting to dismiss through the rest of this paragraph, the objection that boils down to: Wait a minute, this plan hasn't worked so well in Iraq.] In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On September the 11th, 2001, [For fifty years, Democrats ran against the ghost of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. Maybe not for fifty years, but certainly for now, Republicans will run on the ghost of September 11, 2001.] we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer—so we will act boldly in freedom's cause. [Previous three sentences sum up what critics call the "neocon fantasy" and what supporters call the "democratic vision" that form the core of the Bush foreign policy.]

Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, there were about two dozen lonely democracies in the world. Today, there are 122. And we're writing a new chapter in the story of self-government—with women lining up to vote in Afghanistan, and millions of Iraqis marking their liberty with purple ink, and men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom. At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half—in places like Syria and Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran—because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom, as well. [A somewhat awkward passage. You never want a speech to raise in listeners' minds something you'd rather not have them think about—unless you are going to address that concern right away. Anyone in-touch enough with the news to be watching this speech would have to think during this passage: What about Hamas and the PLO? What about the elected theocrats in Iraq? The President sort of gets around to these points later on, but he'd be wiser not to invite the awkward thoughts right here.]

No one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it. And one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam—the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden [nervy mention of this name, since it invites another thought: Hey, wasn't this the guy who attacked us? Wasn't he public enemy #1? Why don't we have him locked up?] are serious about mass murder—and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In