- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

A president's first State of the Union address is usually the most important speech of his political life, but President Bush's address tomorrow might not even rank among his top three.
Since his election nearly 15 months ago, Mr. Bush has delivered high-pressure speeches on the war against terrorism, stem-cell research and his narrow victory in the post-election recount wars.
Those intensely anticipated performances were considered more crucial to the president's overall effectiveness than tomorrow's address. Still, there is no denying the importance of Mr. Bush's words when he takes the podium before a joint session of Congress and millions of prime-time television viewers at 9 p.m. tomorrow.
With the nation fighting a war overseas and recession at home, the president is under considerable pressure to sketch out a road map toward peace and prosperity.
"It's a benchmark for the next three years of his presidency, and that's pretty substantial," said Jane Elmes-Crahall, communications professor at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. "It's the longest opportunity to spell out future not reactive but future initiatives that will define the Bush administration."
The president's Sept. 20, 2001, address to a joint session of Congress is widely considered the most important of his career. But it is a very different type of speech than tomorrow's.
"After the bombings, an emotional chord was called for," said Mrs. Elmes-Crahall, an analyst of political rhetoric. "The exigencies, the needs were so urgent that they defined the moment and directed his response a great deal.
"And of course you never knew if he was going to live up to that situation. And he did. That was a very, very key moment.
"But this one needs to be more substantive in a different way," she added. "The policy is future-directed now, not reactive. So this is a little more traditional argumentation giving good reasons for the policies that are in this order and this priority for the Bush administration."
While the contents of the president's Aug. 9 stem-cell speech were not publicly known in advance, the contents of tomorrow's address have been road-tested for more than a week.
In a series of minor speeches across the nation, Mr. Bush has previewed both the overarching themes and dollars-and-cents specifics of the State of the Union speech. The president will lay out his top three priorities for the coming year prosecuting the war against terrorism overseas, strengthening homeland defense and reversing the economic downturn.
He will also extol the good that can result from what he calls the "great evil" of September 11.
"He can do what he does best: He can be sympathetic to Americans; he can talk to big themes; he can let his passions show," said Wayne Fields, author of "Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence."
"He told us straightforwardly all through the campaign he was a man whose heart we could trust; he never emphasized so much what was in his head," he added. "And what he will do is give a heartfelt message again, which is what's been working for him."
Pundits are fond of labeling every major address a president gives as "the speech of his political life." Such was the moniker given to Mr. Bush's pressure-cooker speech on Dec. 13, 2000, just after former Vice President Al Gore ended 36 days of rancorous recounts by conceding the election.
After acquitting himself in this and subsequent speeches, including his inaugural address and National Cathedral remarks on Sept. 14, Mr. Bush put to rest the question of whether he could deliver under pressure.
He has also received high marks for off-the-cuff remarks, such as when he grabbed a bullhorn to exhort hard hats at ground zero in New York.
"At the moments where he had to speak to what Americans were feeling, this man who isn't by nature terribly eloquent and who, when he is speaking off the cuff, can get himself into lots of trouble did the job very well," said Mr. Fields, director of the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis.
While his off-the-cuff remarks are his own, the president's major addresses are the work of his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson. The born-again Christian spent the last several weeks in virtual "seclusion" while crafting tomorrow's address, according to a White House official.
Mr. Gerson's work on earlier speeches, which were praised by liberals and conservatives alike, has served to mitigate the pressure on Mr. Bush to hit a home run tomorrow.
"This first State of the Union is not quite the new territory that it had been for the last several presidents," Mr. Fields said. "It had been an eventful presidency before he even took the oath, so he's already had to give major addresses.
"In some ways you could say this is rather an easy moment, because we're all aware that we're besieged and the presidential approval ratings have suggested a king of solidarity that we all want to feel," he added.
Mr. Fields, an English professor, said he will be watching tomorrow's speech by Mr. Bush with an eye toward "how he tells the big story the one that is looming above everything else how the union is being threatened by terrorism, both domestic and foreign, and then the more subtle issues of his domestic agenda."

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