I’ve never cared for the SOTU speech; listening to those things was like eating a big damp pillow. Everything’s basically copacetic but it could be 7% more copacetic if we pass these carefully calibrated bills, and let me now point to that person up there who vaguely symbolizes something that made us sad for a week but now fills us with hope, etc.

Last year was different, of course. Last year we needed a Great Speech. A barn-winder. An old fashioned stem-burner. It was more than I expected; as much as some hated the “Axis of Evil” line, it put this big war in the context of the last one. You could boil it all down to this: HELL no. If you think you can take us down we got 57 varieties of ugly waiting for you.

This speech was not that speech. I listened to it on the radio, because you can concentrate on the words, and the applause gives you time to chew over what was said. You’re not distracted by the half-faces that flank the president, or the sight of the claques rising on cue as if hoisted by wires. The radio can’t play gotcha with people who don’t have the proper expression when the camera alights on their face. You just hear the words. And there’s something appropriate about hearing the speech from an antique radio. Ike talked through the one I’m listening to now. Turning on these old radios, waiting for the tubes to warm up - it feels like cracking open a window that’s been painted shut.

Compared to last year, an underwhelming speech - but the more I think about it the less that bothers me; it’s probably the right speech for the time. Hard bones to gnaw, not fresh meat you can chomp and bolt. This will be seen as the first of four speeches - the SOTU, the Bush/Blair speech, Powell’s UN speech, and Bush’s address from the Oval Office the night the war begins. I think it was written with that procession in mind, which might explain its tenor. Let me just write out loud here:

Last year’s address was a recruitment speech. This was more along the lines of the briefing you hear before you get on the ships and head over the channel. Not entirely, of course; I don’t think John Wayne told the boys they were fighting for an acceleration of the marriage penalty phase-out. The first half, the domestic half was, well, domestic. The AIDS / Africa bit was unexpected, and I’m all for it; granted, we’re far behind Osama here, who has been building day care centers and hospitals and AIDS hospices all around the world, which is why they love him. But it’s the right thing to do. It’s also much more complex than Bush let on; you can’t just drop crates of drugs and walk away. When people have to take drugs three times a day, they need clocks, and as obvious as that sounds we’re talking about dirt-poor places that lack, well, everything. They’re going to need clean water. Refrigeration. All the other bounties of an industrial infrastructure. Still, it’s a start. Will it change the minds of those think the US is an arrogant self-absorbed clod with no interest in the rest of the world? Nope.

Then came the Foreign Affairs portion. Obligatory command to North Korea: down. Sit. Stay. (Pity we can’t yet say “Roll over.” ) A surprising turn on Iran: instead of casting the entire nation as a monolithic block o ‘ evil, this time he spoke to the people and said we’re on your side.

Take that for what it’s worth; talk is cheap, and we said that to some people after the last Gulf War, too. But. Imagine you're a young man in Iran, squirreled away in a basement, listening to the speech with your friends - I think I’d be thunderstruck. The Americans are coming - granted, they’ll be moving in next door, but that’s going to change everything. There’s a chance that five years from now they can all watch the Matrix trilogy without drawing the drapes and stationing one guy outside to watch for the cops.

Grand philosophical money quote: Free people will set the course of history.

This is not a statement of the obvious. This runs contrary to much of history itself.

Stick in the eye of the Axis of Weasels money quote: The course of this nation does not depend on the decision of others. It says something about this era that this is an applause line. Truman would have barked that out in a news conference, and he’d have gotten a laugh.

The line that clarified everything: I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country – your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.

It brought to mind Susan Sarandon’s ad, in which she argues against a military effort to depose Saddam. “What,” she asks, “has Iraq done to us?”

Aside from shoot at our pilots, and attempt to kill an ex-President, I’ll grant that they’ve done no more to us than Hitler did to the US in the 30s. But that’s not the point. Sarandon has turned into the very thing her ilk decries: an insular self-satisfied wealthy Westerner who couldn’t care less what happens in other countries, as long as no Americans get a nick.

I don’t believe this war is being fought because Saddam kills his own people. Saddam is a particularly egregious example of a common tyrant; he stands out because he rules a land with great strategic importance, and because his particular brand of megalomaniacal sociopathy makes him an unpredictable actor. It’s not the torture, the war against Iran, the war against Kuwait, the destruction of the oil fields, the gassing of his own people, the starvation of his people to divert resources for palaces and mosques designed to make Robin Leach swoon. It’s the torture and the wars and the oil-field fires and the gassing and the starvation and the palaces and the big grinning fark-you to the terms that ended the last war. Oh, and also the germs, and the gas, and the rockets, and the nukes. And more, which I expect we’ll learn after Powell’s appearance before the UN.

Just to put the screws to the sophisticated, Evil made a particularly vivid cameo: after recounting the horrors that befell the 200,000 political prisoners killed by Saddam (NYT stats; go argue with them) we had this: “If this is not evil, then evil has no name.” This will occasion another round of eye-rolling among those who are less worried about the 200,000 than they are about the role Bush played in downing Wellstone’s plane, but even in European capitals some learned men may have felt a twinge in that empty socket where their conscience once resided. Because - and here’s a point I don’t hear discussed much - even if Saddam turns over everything, he’s still in power. He’s still in control of the apparatus of state terror, and should his black heart seize up and he dies, then come his sons. Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.

What I didn’t hear was the strenuous vigor Bush displayed last year, and there might be two reasons for that:

1. Last year we had more words than precision-guided munitions. Last year he had to lead people to the edge of the bonfire. This year he has to tell us to stand closer. It’s going to get hot. Don’t flinch. You can either pump up the crowd and get the blood boiling so we whoop like war-maddened orcs and hurl ourselves into the flames - but the Europeans et al get bent out of shape whenever he jabs fingers or speaks passionately. Okay, here’s the situation. Just the facts, m’seiur.

The bottom line, in any case, was that war is virtually certain. But this was not an attempt to make us slather on the warpaint, light our beards on fire and berserk our way through the region. The message wasn’t “We’re going.” The message was phrased in terms of the plight of the Iraqi people, and it was this: we’re coming. It was intended as a reassurance.

Yes, yes, yes, Hitler told the Austrians he was liberating them, Soviet Russia said the same to Eastern European nations, it’s all about oil, Bush is stupid, Sean Penn should have Rumsfeld’s job, and construction on that Afghan pipeline starts ANY DAY NOW.

Explanation for diminished vigah #2: He’s tired. This is taking a lot out of him. Think back to the post 9/11 climate, and remember the feeling you’d get in your stomach when you read a story headlined “Does Al Qaeda have a nuke?” or “Smallpox fears rise” - it seemed as if the one thick thread that held your world together was about to get a good hard yank. Some forget how every day brought the same routine - news report, a hot squirt of fear in your stomach, a quick imposition of denial, then . . . well, you had to make dinner, or pick the kids up, or take the dog to the vet. We lived in these twin worlds of the Now and the Horribly Possible. The latter, thank God, hasn’t happened yet.

Imagine, however, that your Now is also your Horribly Possible, and you live there 24-7. And imagine that every day you read intelligence reports that suggest the Possible is quite Likely.

It would take its toll on a fellow.

So what do I take away from the speech? Nothing I didn’t know before. I always thought Iraq was next. Defeating Iraq isn’t the camel’s nose in the tent - it’s the camel’s head in the bed of every other Arab leader.

Let's say I'm a 44-year old Iraqi man with a two-year old girl and a wife who worked in the Ministry of Justice and came home every day weeping because someone else had been taken away, I would hear this speech and be filled with piercing fear and incandescent hope and the two emotions would wrestle every day until it was over. When you think about it, a postwar Iraq might actually be safer from WMD than New York City. It’ll be over for them.

We’ve no idea when it’ll be over for us.

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