- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

With healthy Nielsen ratings, positive polls and much after-buzz, President Bush transformed the State of the Union speech into must-see TV Tuesday night, replacing the ponderous soliloquies of the Clinton era, which had the lowest viewership on record.
Mr. Bush attracted almost 52 million viewers, according to overnight Nielsen ratings; President Clinton's audience ranged from a high of 41 million viewers in 1993 to a low of 27 million in 1997.
Among news channels, Fox garnered more than 4 million viewers, besting the slightly more than 2 million of CNN and the 695,000 of MSNBC.
"We knew viewers wanted authoritative coverage not snotty, nitpicky analysis," Fox's Brit Hume said yesterday. "We always understood that this president has an enormous commitment to the war, and we said it here first, and treated it seriously. Viewers anticipated that."
The speech itself was compelling. A CNN-USA Today poll found that 88 percent of viewers watched the entire speech, with three-quarters calling the it "positive." A CBS poll found 86 percent of viewers approved of what they saw.
The president's sincerity proved popular, even among analysts who had predicted yet another White House laundry list, or were convinced Mr. Bush was riding on September 11 popularity.
His speech was called determined, eloquent, vigorous, confident and sobering, among other things. "You don't hit the ball farther out of the park than he did tonight," gushed one MSNBC correspondent.
British Broadcasting Corp. analyst Paul Reynolds said Mr. Bush was trying "in language and action to take over the mantle of Ronald Reagan as the U.S. realigns its battle line away from the old enemies of the Cold War and towards its new enemies in the war on terrorism."
There was some grousing, however. A good dozen pundits were on Enron watch all week, breathlessly poised to see if the E-word was mentioned. They turned critical when it wasn't.
"He's lecturing corporate America that they should disclose more about their finances when he himself is facing a lawsuit because he refuses to disclose the meetings his government had with Enron," Democratic strategist Paul Begala said.
"I was surprised and, frankly, disappointed, that the president did not tackle the Enron situation," U.S. News & World Report's David Gergen said on ABC.
"War and recession are solemn matters. But they should not be used as a cloak to hide weaknesses in the Bush White House," the Boston Globe stated in an editorial.
Some took swipes at the president's performance.
"Most likely, Mr. Bush's somewhat formless speech will give him a bump in the polls," the Los Angeles Times noted. Another Times headline read, "Bush seeks to capitalize on wartime spirit."
"The contrast with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, is instructive," wrote Los Angeles Times political analyst Ron Brownstein, whom Mr. Clinton once named as his favorite reporter. "It was revealing that Bush's speech last night clocked in at a brisk 48 minutes, compared with the 89-minute marathon Clinton uncorked for his finale in 2000."
Perhaps less is more. During his tenure, Mr. Clinton was plagued by flagging American interest in his State of the Union speeches. During the final O.J. Simpson verdict in 1997, networks split the screen between the live verdict and the speech, which had already been pre-empted once for the Miss USA pageant.
Mr. Clinton's final speech in 2000 had 32 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

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