It might not be evident from the display of unity that greeted the president’s State of the Union address, but the Bush presidency is now entering its most vulnerable stage whatever the fickle polls report for the moment. For nothing disorganizes an administration, not even defeat, like apparent victory. That is when a republic may be tempted to relax its efforts, turn its back on the enemy and sink into familiar lethargy. And into familiar quarrels.
So long as this president spoke of the war against terror last Tuesday night and half of his speech must have been devoted to it he was focused, frank and all the more inspiring for being realistic. His words elevated even as they sobered. He let us see where we have been, where we are now and how very far we still have to go:
“As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger.”
True on all conflicting counts.
Surely other presidents have been more eloquent, but can you think of one who has become so eloquent in so short a time? War must wonderfully concentrate the mind. To the surprise of some, George W. Bush has shown a sharp learning curve.
Though it isn’t noted as often, what this president seems to have learned most is the power of the will, of the spirit, and of the moral unity of this one nation indivisible and the power of a leader who can express it. When he spoke of this war against terror, his words were cogent, concise, compelling. Like the state of the Union itself, they were all of a piece.
What was the most impressive part of his speech? There were so many to choose from. For one thing, he didn’t speak in generalities about the terrorist danger. He named names: “Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad .” He reeled them off like “wanted” posters. The candidate who couldn’t identify the leader of Pakistan during the campaign now praises its president for his cooperation. More impressive, he has made an ally of this former sponsor of the Taliban.
Nor did this president mince words about the “axis of evil” that now threatens the world. He pinpointed it:
“Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September 11. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.”
George W. Bush is making a little list: North Korea, Iran, Iraq . Their time will come. Maybe not today or the next day, but soon enough if they continue to threaten the peace of the world. They’ve now been warned. How refreshing to hear a president speak of evil without asking us to appease or negotiate with or psychoanalyze it but just deal with it. Before it strikes again.
Now, after a dramatic and heartening success in Afghanistan, comes the hard part: the long twilight struggle that will go on long after this president’s watch is over. The same quality that saw us through the early, uncertain weeks of the war in Afghanistan, when every amateur analyst and TV pundit had a better plan than the president’s, will be needed even more now. It is not a quality associated with the American temper: patience.
Long after the applause has faded and the poll numbers have shifted, the American effort will need to be persistent never hurrying, never stopping. Not since Ronald Reagan has a president proposed as great an increase in the military budget, and not since Ronald Reagan has one been so overdue, or so merited.
This president has a domestic agenda, too, and the only part of his 48-minute speech that dragged was when he ticked it off. Suddenly we were back to normalcy with a thud, as the president used some of the same appealing phrases as the opposition (Patients’ Bill of Rights, A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom) but without meaning quite the same thing.
Let the games begin. You could sense the rival interests lining up in the arena like white-collar gladiators. We were back to politics-as-usual, with senators and representatives jumping up and down on cue like competing jacks-in-the-box at each loaded phrase.
Whatever one thinks of the president’s now familiar economic program, or his new Freedom Corps of volunteers, this much should be clear: The attack on this country September 11 was aimed not just at national monuments but the national economy. And its recovery will require the same unity, patience and perseverance as this war has brought forth.
To quote George W. Bush one more time, “We must act not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.” Let’s roll.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.