If it had been Wednesday instead of Tuesday night, I might have thought I'd tuned into an episode of "Lost." Has a State of the Union broadcast ever been quite so surreal and bewildering as the one delivered last week by George W. Bush? These things are supposed to give Americans a sense of wellbeing. I don't know about you, but after glimpsing the inner workings of this guy's mind for approximately 60 minutes, I needed a stiff drink.
I'm not a constitutional scholar, but as I understand the tradition, State of the Union addresses are supposed to report on the state of the union. They're not supposed to be gussied-up stump speeches full of recycled talking points and empty, something-for-everyone promises. Those are for elections. He's got the job. He's a lame duck. Last Tuesday, January 31, the president was supposed to give us an idea how things are going.
Apparently no one at the White House thought so, because Bush's fifth address was little more than a greatest-hits collection of lip-service visions and proposals. Little in the way of the union's state was mentioned, and what was said on that subject was iffy at best:
"America is addicted to oil," the former oilman announced. "Duh," replied everyone in the viewing audience. Luckily, Bush has the cure: investing in "pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen" and "cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol." It's not that these aren't great ideas. They're just not new ideas. Every American president since Richard Nixon has called for energy independence and, after more than 30 years of promises and bold initiatives, the U.S. now imports more of its oil than ever. In 2005, Bush said basically the same thing - he vowed to fund green projects "from hydrogen-fueled cars to renewable sources such as ethanol." Meanwhile, ExxonMobil reported record profits for its last quarter.
Then came his brainstorm about decreasing Saudi Arabian oil imports by 75 percent in the next 20 years (no rush, George), to be replaced by clean, renewable sources of energy. What he neglected to mention was that these imports account for only a fifth of American oil consumption. Do the math. That means a mere 15 percent of the country's energy would then be renewable. How's that for setting the bar high?
Dubya continued to have difficulty with his math throughout the address - in addition, of course, to his usual problem pronouncing the world "nuclear." The president had what sounded like good news with regard to the nation's out-of-control budget deficit. "We will save $14 billion" in the budget recently proposed, he announced, putting him on track to cut "the deficit in half by 2009." The only problem: According to his own 2005 budget, the deficit is $521 billion. At a rate of $14 billion annually, it would take nearly 19 years, not three, to lop it in half. But who's counting? Certainly none of the news commentators I watched that night.
The fibbing, however, was far from over. A central theme in this year's State of the Union speech was that Americans should be afraid. Very afraid. Though he didn't mention him by name, Bush twice evoked the specter of Osama bin Laden. He actually referred to world tyrants seeking weapons of mass destruction. Doesn't he remember what happened the last time we did that? In addition, he made sure we know we're supposed to fear the threat posed by radical Islam ("a perversion of a noble faith by a few"); that no good can come from Iran "defying the world with its nuclear ambitions"; and that the terrorists will have won if the Patriot Act is not reauthorized. ("We don't want to get caught by surprise again.")
Two-thirds of the speech was devoted to subjects related to Iraq, the military or terrorism. In defense of his "terrorist surveillance program," the prez reminded viewers, "Two of the 9/11 hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al Qaeda operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late."
Surprisingly, the president's pants did not burst into flames at this point. It's well known the CIA was aware the two men attended an al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in 2000 before traveling to the U.S. The bugaboo was that the men were not put on terrorist watch lists until they were already in the country; the FBI wasn't told to look for them until August 2001. The government could have easily gotten warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor their communications. It simply failed to do so. The president never quite got around to explaining how circumventing the law now will prevent the sort of government incompetence that occurred back then.
The big news with regard to the war in Iraq? "We are on the offensive . . . with a clear plan for victory." The plan? "We will never surrender to evil . . . We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission." The mission? Top-secret.
Unless it has something to do with spreading democracy, the importance of which the president mentioned several times. Of course, he failed to mention that the whole democracy-spreading thing is going about as well as the defeating-our-enemies thing. Oh, it's spreading through the Middle East, all right. It's just that the people winning elections aren't the people Bush and his buddies had hoped would do so. A terrorist organization called the Muslim Brotherhood has made political inroads in Egypt. And then there's the small matter of Hamas emerging in Palestine with a wipe-Israel-off-the-face-of-the-Earth platform. Evidently the administration forgot to include the Fixing-a-Vote-Count pamphlet in its Democracy Starter Kit.
In addition to spreading democracy, the president's top priorities, we learned, include banning human cloning, limiting medical malpractice damage awards, and making the tax cuts permanent. Yawn.
Among the issues not touched upon by Mr. Bush: Skyrocketing health-care costs and why they're so much higher here than in other countries; out-of-control energy prices; global warming and climate change; the nation's overburdened, antiquated power-grid system (remember the urgency when those blackouts were taking place? Now you don't hear boo about the problem); the autism epidemic (one in every 150 children is born with the disability today); the fact that real wages have failed to keep pace with inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; increasing infiltration of Iraq's army and police force by insurgents; the outsourcing of U.S. jobs; the explosion of political scandals in Washington; the Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and secret-torture prison scandals; cuts in social services; the slow death of the American family farm; childhood obesity (whatever happened to the President's Council on Physical Fitness?); gang violence; illegal immigration; FCC infringement on free speech; the Saddam Hussein trial fiasco; the Katrina FEMA fiasco, and anything that might be done to make sure things work better next time around.
Oh, and the bird flu. Two months ago, we were living in fear of a global pandemic. Today, the avian flu is rarely even alluded to on TV. I don't get it. Are we supposed to panic or not? But, of course, the president only had an hour or so. I suppose we can't expect him to get to everything. So long as we know the rich can rest easy when it comes to their tax cuts. Likewise doctors who'd like to pay less for malpractice insurance. The bucks will keep rolling for Halliburton, while the president, rest assured, will keep the world safe from cloning and annoying political dissent.
A State of the Union address? Nah, let's call it a patriot act.