Unlike an inaugural address, it is difficult to make the State of the Union address uplifting and poetic. So when, every four years, the report to the Congress and nation comes so quickly after the Inauguration, the second speech suffers in comparison.
The most interesting elements are the playing out of the spectacle—the performance—and the nuances of human interaction.
Tom Shales, media critic at The Washington Post was watching the speech as a performance, and wrote of the most dramatic moment of the day.
“Bush spoke, inevitably, of the valor of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq with no end in sight, or at least announced, and paid tribute to a fallen Marine from Texas, Sgt. Byron Norwood. Then came the most emotional moment of the evening. Janet and William Norwood, the young man’s parents, were also seated in the gallery and stood up to tumultuous and prolonged applause. Janet Norwood hugged the Iraqi voter (one finger purple as a symbol of having voted), and they seemed to get briefly entangled in each other’s jewelry as the applause went on.
The president, strikingly, stared up at the balcony with little visible emotion on his face but eyes that appeared to be growing misty. Was this a genuine expression of America appreciating its men and women in uniform, or a shameless political stunt using grief-stricken parents as pawns? As we all know in the age of media moments, it matters less what it was than what it was perceived to be, and to a greater degree than perhaps any other time since he’s been in office, Bush appeared to have the perception presidency well in hand.”
The Iraqi citizen emotionally embracing the parents of a fallen deliverer was a powerful symbol of the march of freedom.
The New York Times saw the speech as the launching of George Bush’s two final campaigns:
“One is to persuade Congress and the American people to go along with his plans to remake not just Social Security but also large swaths of other domestic policy along conservative lines through judicial appointments, legislation and executive action. The other is to shape his own place in history as a leader who extended freedom and democracy more broadly into the world even as he unleashed American military might to combat what he had cast as the terrorist threat to those values.”
Of most interest to me were the statements on social morality and the institutions of society:
1. Church and Family as Purveyors of Values
“Our second great responsibility to our children and grandchildren is to honor and to pass along the values that sustain a free society. So many of my generation, after a long journey, have come home to family and faith, and are determined to bring up responsible, moral children. Government is not the source of these values, but government should never undermine them.”
2. The Defense of Marriage
“Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be re-defined by activist judges. For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.”
3. A Culture of Life
“Because a society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable, we must strive to build a culture of life. Medical research can help us reach that goal, by developing treatments and cures that save lives and help people overcome disabilities — and I thank Congress for doubling the funding of the National Institutes of Health. To build a culture of life, we must also ensure that scientific advances always serve human dignity, not take advantage of some lives for the benefit of others. We should all be able to agree on some clear standards. I will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts, and that human life is never bought and sold as a commodity. America will continue to lead the world in medical research that is ambitious, aggressive, and always ethical.”
4. A Conservative Court
“Because courts must always deliver impartial justice, judges have a duty to faithfully interpret the law, not legislate from the bench. As President, I have a constitutional responsibility to nominate men and women who understand the role of courts in our democracy, and are well qualified to serve on the bench — and I have done so. The Constitution also gives the Senate a responsibility: Every judicial nominee deserves an up-or-down vote.”
5. Compassionate Conservatism
“Because one of the deepest values of our country is compassion, we must never turn away from any citizen who feels isolated from the opportunities of America. Our government will continue to support faith-based and community groups that bring hope to harsh places. Now we need to focus on giving young people, especially young men in our cities, better options than apathy, or gangs, or jail. Tonight I propose a three-year initiative to help organizations keep young people out of gangs, and show young men an ideal of manhood that respects women and rejects violence. Taking on gang life will be one part of a broader outreach to at-risk youth, which involves parents and pastors, coaches and community leaders, in programs ranging from literacy to sports. And I am proud that the leader of this nationwide effort will be our First Lady, Laura Bush.”
Mr. Bush is in charge. You could hear in his voice and see in his eyes the recognition that at no other time, except perhaps in the weeks after Sept.11, has he wielded such power to keep alive the American dream.