For president, a star turn - and politics as usual

January 21, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Along with an aggressive political agenda, President Bush seemed to come armed with a masterful vision for last night's State of the Union address. He would make Democrats applaud for him - or make them look like bad citizens for sitting in silence.

As he spoke of changes achieved in Iraq, one notable Democrat - New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - clapped so tepidly her hands were hardly making contact. Democratic Sen. John Breaux, a wily centrist from Louisiana, rolled his eyes as he heard yet another exhortation to cut taxes.

The president, though, rolled on. His words occasionally blurred, he sometimes stepped on his own lines, he was occasionally defensive, often raising the purported objections of unnamed critics, only to dismiss their criticisms.

But largely, Bush spoke with clarity and confidence last night, propelled by the forceful, pointed words crafted by his speechwriters.

Before the address, correspondents such as NBC News' Andrea Mitchell reminded viewers of last January's State of the Union speech, when Bush wrongly cited what he said was British intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein had bought enriched uranium from Africa.

After this speech, there was little room for such criticism. "No question whatsoever that the president has mastered the podium," said ABC News anchor Peter Jennings just after the speech. Said CBS News anchor Dan Rather, pointing to the Republican dominance over both Houses of Congress, "Why would he not be confident?"

Yet in this election year, that confidence was not enough to overcome clear demonstrations of partisan politics. Bush was interrupted by mocking applause from Democrats when he called for expanding the reach of law enforcement authorities by noting the imminent expiration of the Patriot Act, which gives broad powers to government investigators. Republicans, though, returned the volley with redoubled support for Bush.

Indeed, the Bush administration picked last night for the State of the Union to try to knock the Democrats, coming off their first 2004 election contest, out of the spotlight.

But the speech had other competition for the spotlight as well. Many cable and network news analysts on the air last night were focused on another story - Sen. John Kerry's surprisingly strong win in the Democratic Iowa Caucuses on Monday. And there were other topics of interest - the Scott Peterson trial, the Michael Jackson trial, the Martha Stewart trial.

Distilled to its essence, Bush's address might echo the old Saturday Night Live parody of the president's father, President George H.W. Bush: "Saddam Hussein - bad. Taxes - bad. Teaching standards - good. Stay the course."

The speech, bare-knuckled politics draped with the sobriety of state affairs, was carefully choreographed. The major news networks and politicians took mutual advantage of each other for the nationally televised address. There were the same props as ever - the giant American flag hanging behind the president; the constant leaping and cheering of stalwart supporters; citizens both ordinary and extraordinary brought into the spotlight for an evening.

Up in the balcony, Adnan Pachachi, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council, sat near quarterback Tom Brady of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots. While Pachachi basked in cheers after the president pointed him out, it appeared that Brady became increasingly aware, when the camera fixed on him, that he was applauding an anti-steroid exhortation that might anger many of his NFL peers.

Sometimes the theatrical riggings of the events poked out from the wings.

"Some members on the Republican side - and Democrats as well - have already sent out statements about their reactions to a speech none of them have yet heard," Fox News anchor Brit Hume said before the broadcast.

Bush's address was, ABC's Jennings said later last night, "a blueprint of his own election campaign." But, he noted, "no mention here of Osama bin Laden" despite Bush's wide-ranging remarks about the terrorist threat to the United States.

And, indeed, in their formal televised response, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle assailed what Bush clearly saw as his strength - his leadership abroad. Pelosi attacked Bush's for "a go-it-alone foreign policy" and a "radical doctrine of pre-emptive war."

Within minutes of their rebuttal, though, the networks had already moved on.

NBC broadcast a political profile of Bush cast in the context of the 2004 presidential race. ABC was interviewing Iowa winner Kerry. Fox News was assessing the political terrain in the first primary state, New Hampshire.

By evening's end, it wasn't clear that the Bush administration, so sure-footed when it comes to managing the media, had ensured that the impact of this year's State of the Union address would linger for long.

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