As a simple matter of theater criticism it was hard to find much wrong with George W. Bush's speech last night. Billed as an address to a joint session of Congress there's some debate about whether it can technically be called a State of the Union address this early in a president's term it was really Bush's first night as President. Until now, the pall of illegitimacy has engulfed him. But the Miami Herald's finding that Bush would have really won Florida if all the votes had been counted, and the tragicomic Clinton follies combined with the sheer majesty of speaking from the podium all added up to making Bush look like the President. It helped, too, that unlike his inaugural or his convention speech last summer, he left his parents out of it. No cutaways of George and Barbara, weeping with pride over this boy of theirs.
Some speeches fit the man and some don't. This one did. Bush's inaugural was hyperpoetic, filled with rococo imagery of "ghosts in the storm" and "travelers in Jericho." This time, it was plainspoken like the man: A little bit funny, a little bit tough. It was Andover and Midland. It had West Texas touches of humor but also echoes of Bush's grandfather, Connecticut sdenator Prescott Bush. When Dubya said of America "to whom much is given much is expected," he could have been talking about himself and his own privileged background. His talk about the nobility of government service was more Grandpa than Reagan.
It started from the get-go. Bush's joke about half of Congress not inviting him tonight was a tacit admission about how close the election had been. Had Bush talked about fixing America's lousy voting machines there are bills in Congress to prevent another chad disaster he would have nailed it even more. But the humility sufficed. His acknowledgment that statistics show a country thriving and stumbling at the same time also seemed to capture the national mood just right.
The panders to Democrats were sometimes over the top, but it did the job. There was the tip of the hat to the black Democratic mayor of Philly and the black-Hispanic couple (twofer!) of West Chester, Pa. (Why all the fawning over the Keystone State?) He saluted the ailing Democratic congressman Joe Moakley. He quoted JFK and threw a bouquet to self-styled deal maker, Louisiana senator John Breaux. By comparison, poor Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle seemed niggling and churlish in their Democratic response. Although you have to feel sorry for them: the faux library of a House office is no match for the live action drama from the chamber floor. It was all there: the dramedy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the swagger of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the vanquished Joe Lieberman and the absent Supreme Court. Like a party where you know people hate each other, you kept wondering who would bump into whom.
The problem for Bush is that this isn't a one-night performance. He has to convince Americans that his huge tax cut isn't just fuzzy math and wishful thinking. Bush avoided such hot buttons as his anti-abortion rights position and his wanting to drill for oil in Alaska's protected wilderness. He flicked at what he calls the "death tax," but Democrats will remind voters that the move would funnel billions to the superrich. Bush's education plans sounded good from the rostrum, but it'll be all but impossible to sell Congress on vouchers for religious schools. Missile defense? It might be an easier sell if the Pentagon could get the thing to work.
But that's tomorrow's problem. For now, Bush had the kind of night he wanted. He should enjoy it while he can.