A Speechwriter's Take on SOTU
From long experience, I've decided that giving my own take on a Big Bush Speech is a waste of space, because I invariably misunderestimate his rhetorical strengths, and know too much about his weaknesses, his record, and the Objective Reality he so often ingores.
So: this time I've decided to paralyze my frontal lobes and look at this SOTU from the vantage-point of a professional speechwriter, which is what I used to be. Here we go:
Speech Mission: Re-establish a sense of irresistable momentum for the administration's foreign and domestic policies, including those that seem to be in trouble.
Primary Message: Freedom works, retroactively validating administration policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and prospectively validating administration policies at home.
Secondary Message: We are up to great things here, and Democrats are simply obstructing the March of Progress.
Desired Print Lede: "Bush Says Democracy Is on the March."
Desired Electronic Media Bite: "Two weeks ago, I stood on the steps of this Capitol and renewed the commitment of our nation to the guiding ideal of liberty for all. This evening I will set forth policies to advance that ideal at home and around the world."
Defensive Electronic Media Bite: "Our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics."
Speech Structure: economy, values, security.
Flyover Country: sections on the economy up until Social Security were standard pablum; values section all pablum; rhetortical weight of speech all about security.
Surprises: several, none of them dramatic: (1) much less on the budget than advertised; (2) an odd specific statement in a generally foggy Social Security section that ultimately, younger workers could divert a full 4% of payroll to private accounts (a high figure even among devoted privatizers); (3) a commitment of real dollars and unprecedented U.S. interest in Abu Mazen's Palestinian government, and (4) an overdue suggestion that maybe Egypt and Saudi Arabia ought to get with the democracy idea themselves.
Bipartian Grace Notes: limited to former, and some of them dead, Democrats Bush cited as being worried about Social Security solvency. That was it. No acknowledgement of the closeness of the election or Kerry's quick and gracious concession; no acknowledgement of the legitimacy of any opposition on any issue.
Generally, I thought the speech was pretty pedestrian other than the grande finale about freedom, dreams and threads of purpose. A CNN snap poll showed the public liked it a lot, but I doubt it will change too many minds on issues like SocSec. Pundits will eventually raise doubts about many of the details of the speech, such as Bush's belligerent and ludicrous claim that his energy bill is essential to the achievement of energy independence.
From a speechwriter's point of view, however, this verbally challenged man got through another SOTU without inflicting much damage on his various causes, though when you really look at it, his rhetoric continues to represent a fog machine rather than any lighthouse for the truth.
UPDATE: as a statement by Sen. John Kerry pointed out, the President's speech did not mention the name of Osama bin Laden. In its determination to identify the war on terror with administration policies in Iraq, the speech also said little or nothing about domestic terror threats, other than repeating the usual half-true chesnut about "staying on the offensive."
UPDATE II, THURSDAY: as you can imagine, I was a little suprised to open up the papers this morning and discover that Bush's speech was ALL ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY. There's a simple and rather interesting explanation for that: as a mental health measure, I didn't watch any of the pre- or post-SOTU media jabbering, and thus was not aware that the administration has released a briefing paper on SocSec before the speech. In other words, the speech wasn't just "the speech," but part of a rollout of a long-awaited proposal, or at least the parts of the proposal that the administration was willing to talk about. I felt better about my "mistake" when I read Josh Marshall's initial take on the speech. Nobody could accuse Josh of letting any Bush comment on SocSec get by him, but he, too, thought the speech underplayed SocSec compared to what we were all expecting.