President Bush showed what he does well at the beginning of the State of the Union ceremony when he graciously acknowledged and introduced Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House of Representatives. He seemed both generous and sincere, and it was the right touch for a genuinely historic moment.
At the end of his speech he introduced four Americans of whom the nation can be proud, including Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who made like a Hollywood stunt man to save the life of a stricken passenger who had fallen onto the tracks in front of an oncoming subway train.
The rest of the evening was a study in governmental dysfunction. The audience kept mindlessly applauding ó up and down, like marionettes ó when in fact there was nothing to applaud. The state of the union is wretched, which is why the presidentís approval ratings are the worst since Nixon and Carter.
If Mr. Bush is bothered by his fall from political grace, it wasnít showing on Tuesday night. He seemed as relaxed as ever, smiling, signing autographs, glad-handing.
I wanted to hear him talk about the suffering of the soldiers he has put in harmís way, and the plight of the residents of New Orleans. I wanted to hear him express a little in the way of sorrow for the many thousands who have died unnecessarily on his watch. I wanted to see him slip the surly bonds of narcissism and at least acknowledge the human wreckage that is the sum and substance of his sustained folly.
But this is a president who runs when empathy calls. While others are monitoring the casualty lists, heís off to the gym. At least Lyndon Johnson had the decency to agonize over the losses he unleashed in Vietnam.
The State of the Union speech was boilerplate at a time when much of the country, with good reason, is boiling mad. The United States, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, seems paralyzed. It canít extricate itself from the war in Iraq, canít rebuild the lost city of New Orleans, canít provide health care for all of its citizens, canít come up with a sane energy policy in the era of global warming, canít even develop a thriving public school system.
If itís true, as President Bush told his audience, that ďmuch is asked of us,Ē itís equally true that very little has been delivered.
The Democrats, delighted by the wounded Bush presidency, believe this is their time. Like an ostentation of peacocks, an extraordinary crowd of excited candidates is gathering in hopes of succeeding Mr. Bush.
But such a timid crowd!
Ask a potential Democratic president what he or she would do about the war, and youíll get a doctoral dissertation about the importance of diplomacy, the possibility of a phased withdrawal (but not too quick), the need for Iraqis to help themselves and figure out a way to divvy up the oil, and so on and so forth.
A straight answer? Surely you jest. The Democrats remind me of the boxer in the Bonnie Raitt lyric who was ďafraid to throw a punch that might land.Ē
Thereís a hole in the American system where the leadership used to be. The country that led the miraculous rebuilding effort in the aftermath of World War II canít even build an adequate system of levees on its own Gulf Coast.
The most effective answer to this leadership vacuum would be a new era of political activism by ordinary citizens. The biggest, most far-reaching changes of the past century ó the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the womenís movement ó were not primarily the result of elective politics, but rather the hard work of committed citizen-activists fed up with the status quo.
Itís time for thoughtful citizens to turn off their TVs and step into the public arena. Protest. Attend meetings. Circulate petitions. Run for office. I suspect the public right now is way ahead of the politicians when it comes to ideas about creating a more peaceful, more equitable, more intelligent society.
The candidates for the most part are listening to their handlers and gurus and fat-cat contributors, which is the antithesis of democracy. Itís not easy for ordinary men and women to be heard above that self-serving din, but it can be done.
Voters should listen to Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1954:
ďPolitics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.Ē
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