David Frum January 28th, 2003 at 12:00 am
getting a little choked up at the thought of President Bush’s State of the
Union address tonight: It will be the first of these big addresses that I won’t
have worked on myself.
2001 State of the Union address was delivered at the end of February 2001. Such
first speeches are not formally known as "States of the Union" at
all: The theory is that a president who has been in office barely six weeks
isn’t yet ready to give a report. Instead, they are titled "Economic
Messages," and they focus on the first budget the president intends to
send to Congress.
"Economic Message" was — in comparison to what came next — more or
less a guerrilla affair. It was drafted by a little group of four of us in a
basement in the West Wing, then radically revised in a single weekend at Camp
David by Bush and his top communications aide, Karen Hughes.
the past, States of the Union had tended to be big, themeless monsters, crammed
full of ideas and proposals from every department of the federal government.
Clinton was the worst offender, but by no means the only one.
was different. He insisted that his most important speech of the year have an
overarching message — and so each one has done. That first speech, for
example, had the clarity of a syllogism:
The U.S. has a big surplus (as it then did).
2. We’re going to spend some
of this surplus on top priorities: education, Medicare, and the military.
We’re going to use some more of it to retire debt.
We’re going to return the rest to the taxpayers.
Thank you and good night.
second speech, in January of 2002, contrasted sharply with the first. It was
written in the midst of war by an administration that had settled into its
chairs. It was a big job, involving people from all over the White House — and
even all over the executive branch. It had to deal with both the threat of
terrorism abroad and the economic slowdown at home. Yet it too was simple and
direct — and it too was under an hour in length.
2002 speech drove home one forceful message: The United States is threatened by
an axis of evil made up of both terrorist groups — not only al-Qaeda but also
Hamas and Hezbollah — and of terror-sponsoring states that now seek weapons of
mass destruction, notably Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The speech gave notice
of a new policy of the United States toward terror states: The U.S. would no
longer let them throw the first punch. (Or, as the President more elegantly put
it, "I will not wait while dangers gather.") In other words: With the
world menaced by terrorism, the United States was laying aside its Cold War
strategy of containment and deterrence for a new strategy of pre-emption.
will Bush do tonight? Two predictions I feel pretty confident of. This speech
too will have a clear message — and it will once again clock in at under one
suspect he will begin with the domestic portion of the speech. He’ll want to
describe his new tax plan in some detail and show how it will help the families
listening to the speech. He’ll explain how reducing the tax on corporate
dividends will correct the tax code’s bias in favour of debt finance — how
that correction will cause the value of companies’ shares to rise — and how a
rising stock market benefits everybody.
most attended to portions of the speech, however, will deal with Iraq and the
Middle East. Bush will remind his listeners of Iraq’s repeated breaches of its
international obligations and of the craven failure of the United Nations to do
anything about that defiance. He will promise to return to the United Nations
once more, but he will announce that the United States and its allies will be
prepared to act outside the United Nations system if the UN fails again. This
speech will be the no-turning-back moment for Bush — and for Saddam Hussein.
here’s the great question mark over the speech: Will the President keep talking
after he makes his case for war? Will he talk about what comes after the war?
For example, about his larger plans for a more democratic, more economically
open Middle East, at peace with itself and therefore capable of making peace
with Israel and with the West? Those plans for a new Middle East terrify those
who have profited from the tyranny and disorder of the old Middle East, including,
sad to say, the government of France. Many people will no doubt urge the
President to be cautious and circumspect, to save his grand design for later.
And perhaps he will follow that advice.
with Bush, I’ve always found it wise to bet that he’ll take the bolder course.
And if he follows form tonight, he will deliver a speech to remember.