The blocks around the Capitol were empty and faintly menacing as the Congress assembled to receive the President. The streets were closed and quiet and patrolled by more than a thousand police. As I walked through the sealed-off streets, walking the final two blocks toward the Russell Senate Office Building because my car could come no closer than Union Station, it occurred to me how we have already adjusted to the nearness of terror. It seems almost normal that the center of the nation’s capital should be isolated from the world when its President comes to visit. And I wonder: can we hold onto our conviction that it is not normal – and should never be accepted as normal?
Medicare Reform Now
The most exciting – to me – lines in the domestic portion of the State of the Union speech were the President’s exhortation to Congress to enact Medicare reform this very year. The President listed many important domestic projects – the development of motors that run on hydrogen and the creation of individual Social Security accounts – but set no timetables or deadlines. Two years ago, I would have predicted that Social Security reform would take precedence over healthcare, if only because conservative ideas about Social Security were so much more developed than those about health. The collapse of the stock market seems to have changed that – and it now looks as if Social Security is to be shoved off to the indefinite future.
Abortion and the Presidential Conscience
The President condemned both partial-birth abortion and also human cloning. Has any President – including even Ronald Reagan – spoken up more often and more consistently for the pro-life cause?
What Wasn’t There
I saw Bob Zoellick in the aisles of Congress – but I heard not one word about free trade, either in this hemisphere or throughout the world. Zoellick’s bargain – steel tariffs now in exchange for freer trade later – now truly looks like a sucker’s bet.
The Smoking Gun
Critics of this administration’s Iraq policies raise two questions: Why Iraq? And why now? After the president’s listing of the murderous potential of Iraq’s vast stockpile of deadly weapons, it is hard to imagine that anybody could still ask the “Why Iraq?” question in good faith. That leaves them with only their “why now?” objection – but of course, their real question, and their conviction, is “why ever?”
Iraq is first, but the president made clear he has not forgotten Iran – or its oppressed and rebellious people.
Democracy for the Middle East
Bush talked relatively little about his plans for a post-Saddam Middle East. He repeated his hope for peace between a “secure Israel and a democratic Palestine.” He declared his solidarity with the people of Iran. And he stressed that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be a victory not only for the United States – but emancipation for the people of Iraq. The United States will bring Iraq not only food and medicine, but also freedom. Excellent so far. But the United States intends to do more in the Middle East than just disarming Iraq; it intends to reorder the politics of the region. This is a grand and difficult project in the Middle East – and the American people might have benefited from hearing more of the details. So might the people of the Middle East.
The Meaning of Evil
Nice to hear the president condemn communism by name – and not via the vaguer term “totalitarianism” that he used on September 20, 2001. Nice to be reminded, though, that the word “evil” still has meaning for this president. I’m sorry that the word creeps out the French. No, actually I am not sorry at all. They hate the word “evil” because they have so often chosen to do business with evil. Perhaps it is not sophisticated chagrin they feel when they hear President Bush speak, but shame. Or is that giving them too much credit?
The 2003 State of the Union speech was a fine speech, but not quite so fine as the speeches of September 20, 2001, or other speeches that this president has given. I suppose that step-down in quality was inevitable. When the decision was made to produce a more typical State of the Union address, with the usual long laundry list of priorities and ideas, the decision was also made, consciously or unconsciously, to produce a less brilliant piece of oratory – because unity and coherence are necessary to brilliant oratory. Oh well. It is action that gives oratory its power – and who doubts now that action against Saddam Hussein will soon be forthcoming?