George W. Bush gave his third State of the Union address for the umpteenth time on PBS, and it only gets more surreal with each screening — like a dream where something is missing ... but what?
Maybe the surreality came from the fact that half the house sat on its hands. Maybe it was curious absence of Osama bin Laden. Maybe we were peering through the 15,000 souls who have left the planet in acts of war since the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Maybe it was the contrast between red and blue realities, or the image of a well-rehearsed president coached to play to standing O's, but untrained in how to adjust for smattered claps. Maybe that was it. Because it was weird. The president, in full makeup, freshly dusted with Texas dirt, confident, commanding — gosh, he even had a new twinkle, did you see that? a new kind of wink he kept shooting to the big shots down front. Code for: palm of my hand.
By contrast, his crew looked beat to crap. Colin Powell was ashen; Condi Rice in total lockdown; Tom Ridge's face has shrunk to the size of a tennis ball; Ashcroft was pink, puffy, awestruck and teary, thinking about eagles again; Rumsfeld should have just come in a hospital gown with a totable IV.
Making his special once a year appearance over the president's right shoulder was VP Dick Cheney, great white wall of seething intelligence whose soul remains unrested until returned again to hiding. The backup props looked equally doleful. Three soldiers representing the armed forces barely applauded, undazzled; one of them actually yawned and another rolled her eyes. Even the military brass were slow to rise.
But the award for Most Unenthusiastic goes to the Democrats, who, time after time, remained silent and seated. What better illustration of the state of the union than one side clapping and one side not? At one point there were boos.
The wide shot showed the Republican majority spilling into the left chamber, rendering the Democrats essentially moot. In other words, many of the programs the president is selling are likely to be passed. Maybe that's what he's twinkling about. Makes one yearn for gridlock. Someday someone will point out to the Republocrats that more laws equal bigger government.
Of course, the State of the Union address is not a political speech — it's a business report and a primary responsibility of the president — but it's also the last such speech before the election. So it's an enormous political speech.