"An army of platitudes in search of an idea."
This withering description of a 1921 speech by Warren Harding often captures the tone of the annual presidential report to Congress, which President Bush is to deliver tonight.
There are exceptions, State of the Union addresses that have endured: Monroe's eponymous doctrine, Lincoln's appeal to the "last best hope," FDR's Four Freedoms, LBJ's Great Society. Yet all that the Constitution mandates is that the president "give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary."
Such "measures," of course, have multiplied as the power of the federal government has expanded. As a result, the State of the Union (known in Washington parlance by the acronym SOU) has become a battlefield for policy disputes and turf wars within the modern presidency. Style and thematic integrity are ritualistically sacrificed in what is called the "staffing process" in which various agencies vent their outrage on the speechwriter for failing to more prominently advance their proposals.
Scribes who survive resign themselves to salvaging whatever remnants of poetry they can from the rising tide of angry editorial ink. So far, the Bush wordsmiths seem to have managed better than most. Last year's SOU was universally lauded, with even the New York Times conceding that the president had "soared to new heights."
Though Bush has picked some of the sharpest writers in the business, there is more than talent at work in today's real West Wing. The "Bush 43" team enjoys three advantages most of its predecessors lacked.
The first is access. The core troika that works jointly on most major addresses (chief speechwriter Mike Gerson, Matthew Scully and John McConnell) has been with the president since 1999. Their tenure has fostered a tight working relationship with Bush and one another. They bang out speeches, crowded around a single computer, playing riffs with words and ideas. Gerson conducts but Bush calls the tune.
When I wrote for his father, writers' meetings were brief and distracted. This president meets regularly and at greater length with his writers. In my day, West Wing passes and mess privileges were out of the reach of mere writers, whereas each of the son's guns carries an official presidential title, with Gerson included in senior staff and policy meetings.
But just as it's possible to be too detached from the process (as, arguably, my boss was), it's also possible to be too involved. Here is the second advantage the current writers share with their boss: discipline.
Every SOU runs the risk of becoming a bureaucratic grab bag of programs. In this White House, individual agency requests for more speech time are considered by the president's top advisors but not subjected to the endless polling that was done in the previous administration. President Clinton's SOUs, for example, twice ran more than 9,000 words, whereas Bush managed to deliver a fairly significant message last year, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, in less than half as many words.
The third advantage is as undeniable as it is unwelcome, and that is the context of tragedy and war. The immediate aftermath of the attacks inspired eloquence ("We meet in the middle hour of our grief"), defiance ("We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before") and words to assure a shaken nation ("The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.")
The immediacy of our anguish and our fear inspired in us the need to listen and a willingness to believe. Sixteen months later, memories have faded and the sense of peril has worn off. But Bush retains another advantage, evidenced all too rarely in public and private life, and that is character. Plainly defined, it is the ability to keep a resolution long after the mood in which you made it has passed.
At this time last year, the president promised "to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction." Critics have decried Bush's "rush to war," in hopes of diverting his steady and deliberate tread. Others have pounced on the words "axis of evil" as if the phrase itself were more disturbing than the reality it represents.
I predict they will be disappointed tonight, as Bush brings the same moral gravity and sense of urgency to the podium that have propelled his speeches since this crisis began.