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Live from the Ed Sullivan Theatre

January 30th, 2003 · No Comments

So I fully expected the Corner crowd to fall over themselves in competition to fellate the president most vigorously after the SotU address, and they came through admirably, gushing at great length about all the lovely things “Bush said, with fire in his eyes.” I confess being a bit surprised by the enthusiasm of Andrew Sullivan, who I don’t think could have been more effusive if Jesus Christ had descended from the Capitol Dome and, right there on CNN, personally called him to paradise. Iâ??m not going to â??sueâ? Sully â??for being moved,â? but I am “moved” to make fun of him just a tiny bit.

We get comparisons to JFK, visions of “glimmers of the real core of compassionate conservatism,” a sense of being “morally led,” praise for Bush’s”resilience, patience and a moral grasp of America’s current responsibility,” an “irrefutable” case for war (I guess he must have arranged the same arguments we’ve been hearing for months in a particularly compelling order), and perhaps most unsettling “a tour de force of big government conservatism, mixed with Cold War liberalism.” Big government conservatism. Great. All the moralistic paternalism, without any of that pesky constitutionalism or fiscal discipline. Where do I sign up?

Sully wasn’t the only one impressed — in fact, it seemed as though everyone liked what they heard.The New Republic‘s blog thought “this was a State of the Union address to the left of anything Bill Clinton delivered in his second term, at least domestic policy-wise,” while Steve Moore thought it confirmed that Bush would serve “the third term that the Gipper never had.” Even Radley got “goosebumps.”

So, what’s going on here? Is this just the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in effect? Maybe in part, but on reflection, I suppose it probably was a well done speech in certain respects. I may have been less inspired (though I rather doubt I’d have felt “morally led” under any circumstances), first, because I was reading along as much as I was watching Bush himself, and second, because a couple years of collegiate debate tends to train you to filter out style and presentation, except in a sort of detatched way, in order to file away good tricks for future use. Slate’s Will Saletan, who’s also accustomed to looking at rhetorical tools that way, seemed to have a similar reaction, noting that the speech was surprisingly short on its nominal main topic: the state of the union, as opposed to a wishlist for its future state.

As I look over some of the points of strongest praise, I notice that it’s precisely these things — Bush’s stage presence, his quiet assurance, his appearance of caring, and of course, the “fire in his eyes” — that people focus on. (Gene notes not being able to help liking the guy despite himself.) Well, fine. So cast him as Tevye in the community playhouse production of Fiddler on the Roof. If (and this is a big if) I learned anything from debate, it’s that presence and the appearance of conviction have nothing to do with how good your ideas are, or indeed, how sincere you are about them. I watched people really skilled in the craft bring audiences near tears defending positions I knew they thought were complete bollocks. So none of that, especially coming in a speech that’s agonized over and coached for days beforehand, strikes me very forcefully. When Sully gets over being swept away with the sheer moral vision of it all, maybe those niggling concerns he raised at the beginning of his response will loom a bit larger. Maybe others will be a little discomfited by the misleading use of facts, like Bush’s meaningless reference to the “average” (i.e. mean, not median) tax rebate under his plan. The State of the Union address was the drunken one night stand that looks good flanked by candlelight and Bush’s soft murmurs. In the cold light of morning, though, some of those who were “moved” on Tuesday night may find themselves wanting to gnaw off an arm…

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