THE FIRST TIME George W. Bush delivered the State of the Union address, I was pissed. This wasn’t the president of the United States. He hadn’t really won. Even he made reference to the fact that his ascension to the presidency was one of the more bizarre events in American history: "I know Congress had to formally invite me, and it could have been a close vote," President Bush said to laughter. "So, Mr. Vice-President, I appreciate you being here to break the tie."
I didn’t find it funny.
The second time Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, I was pissed again. This time I wasn’t just angry pissed; I was also drunk pissed. It was nine days after 9/11. Life felt difficult. And so instead of wallowing in misery with sober minds, my best friend and I bought a couple of six-packs, settled into his living room before the president’s speech, and emptied those 12 bottles with all due speed. Over the course of the evening, I developed an inexplicable affinity for Bush. It could’ve been that I wanted a leader, someone who I believed would fight off those evildoers before they came for me. It could have been that I heard what I wanted to hear in his words. Or it could’ve been the booze.
I think it was the booze.
And so this year, when I was asked to write about the State of the Union address from an outside perspective — as someone who doesn’t traffic in political writing for a living, but watches from the sidelines — I went back to the bottle to refresh my memory. No, I didn’t get drunk this time. Instead, I found a drinking game posted online — "The State of the Union Address Drinking Game 2004" at www.drinkinggame.us — and simply wished I’d imbibed. I wasn’t alone: by the time Bush mentioned the phrase "catastrophic health-care coverage" in the latter half of the speech, a head-shaking, chin-stroking, permanently grimacing Senator Ted Kennedy looked like he too wished he was slugging back shots with the folks at home.
IF A DRINKING game can be used to gauge an event’s predictability, the State of the Union address didn’t offer up anything particularly shocking. Although Bush didn’t bring up Mars (one drink) or rattle off statistics for an "average family of four" (two drinks), the terrorism-obsessed Texan did mention Medicare eight times, Afghanistan five times, and the deficit once. He name-checked Saddam Hussein five times, used the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" three times, and mispronounced "nuclear" four times. And based on the terms of the online game, that entitles players to 28 alcoholic servings, not counting other take-a-drink triggers such as "senior," "Iraq," and "Department of Homeland Security."
Early on, Bush called for renewal of the Patriot Act, an invasive law so unpopular with the American public that Attorney General John Ashcroft had to flit around the country defending it to the press. There was an unintentionally funny moment in the speech when Bush said, "Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year," and those on the Democratic side of the aisle applauded. Bush reflexively stopped talking to soak in the praise, but then his body language abruptly changed. You could actually see his brain at work: wait, they’re making fun of me. He shot the Dems a death glare and went on: "The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule. Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens. You need to renew the Patriot Act." (Note: any variation of the word "terror" gets one drink.)
Whenever the camera cut away to an overhead shot of the House chamber, one of the president’s legs was extended behind him, nervously twitching behind the podium. It was a telling glimpse, a peek behind the curtain revealing the tense man beneath the tough talk. It sort of endowed him with human-like qualities.
But not everything about the address was expected — at least from the perspective of the Bush administration. The speech was scheduled for the day after the Iowa caucuses. It didn’t have to come one day after the Democrats’ big day. But here’s guessing that Bush adviser Karl Rove (who apparently told the president to "stick to principle" when he balked at giving the country’s wealthiest yet another tax break, according to Ron Suskind’s new book The Price of Loyalty — see "Paul O’Neill and the Price of Truth," page 7), specifically scheduled the address one day after Iowa to steal headlines from the Democratic presidential primary. And, more specifically, to offer a clear alternative to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who was expected to mop up the field. So Bush’s talk included tailor-made refutations of Dean’s criticisms of his administration. Like Dean’s insistence that the US should’ve waited for the United Nations’ authorization before invading Iraq. "There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations, and submitting to the objections of a few," Bush said firmly. "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people."
BUSH SAVED the truly weird stuff for the end. Like when he brought up the prevalence of performance-enhancing steroids in professional sports, apropos of, well, nothing. (Something that comedians Jon Stewart, acting as a talking head for NBC’s Tom Brokaw, and Dennis Miller, doing the same for CNBC — where he he’ll have an hourlong news show that debuts January 26 — had some fun with. This is a crude paraphrase, but Miller said Bush could have taken care of several points at once by banning steroid-laden weddings.) "Tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now." It didn’t make sense. Was football mentioned just so that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady could have a close-up?
Close-ups are among the juiciest parts of watching State of the Union addresses. Like the MTV music awards, where Britney made out with Madonna and the camera crews zeroed in on Justin Timberlake’s supposed shock, the State of the Union address is all about the televised reaction. Getting just the right close-ups is a calculated effort to find the audience member who’s the happiest with what the president’s saying (cut to anti-gay senator Rick Santorum shooting out of his seat, wildly clapping his hands when Bush bashed gay marriage); the most pissed off (Ted Kennedy’s response to Medicare); the most representative (three military personnel — a woman, a black man, and a white man). Close-ups of the spectators are also fun, like picking movie stars out of the crowd at the Oscars, except they’re all uglier. There was US Senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton with a gaudy flower on her dark dress. There was Representative Charles Rangel, head sunken into his chest like he wanted to die. There was smiley Bill Frist, who appeared to have borrowed his head from Rich Little. There was Tom DeLay, whose thick fleshy neck resembled Jabba the Hutt’s.
And then there was an hour’s worth of close-ups of the president of the United States of America and his disconcerting smirk. (DailyKos.com ran an open thread on Bush’s speech, which drew this assessment of the president from pilgrim99: "Smirking chimp." Plenty of other posters noted that they just couldn’t stomach the visuals of Bush. Asak, for one, confessed: "I can’t take more than about 5 seconds of Bush speaking. I just ... can’t ... handle it.") But mostly he just looked batty. The former Houston Astros owner didn’t look crazy, exactly, but beady-eyed and pointy-eared. Like a bat. Like one of Dracula’s flying acolytes. Or like Bat Boy, Weekly World News’s half-man, half-bat cover model. Except with smaller eyeballs.
Sure, such an association might seem unwarranted, given that comparing the leader of the free world to a tabloid freak who fraternizes with the likes of the Evil Mole People and the 600-pound woman in supermarket-checkout aisles wouldn’t generally be considered a gesture of respect. But after 45 minutes of mixing stark words like "killers," "murder," "danger," "thug," and "violence" with old stock language like "terror," "threat," "war," and "evil" over and over again, Bush’s language began to take on the same sensationalist tone as a Weekly World News headline like SATAN ESCAPES FROM HELL. (Note: of all these words, only "terror" and its variants would win you a sip or a shot in the State of the Union drinking game.)
But use of fiery hot-button words, of course, seemed to be the point of the address. Bush is all about reminding us of 9/11, reminding us that we’re still not safe, that we must not give up the fight, that we must re-elect him to keep this country sound.
Uh, yeah, right. I think I’ll have that drink.
Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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