You and everyone you love are riding on a large bus. The bus driver, unskilled and careless, drives too fast, ignores traffic signals, and barrels off the road occasionally. Because the bus is huge, other vehicles swerve to get out of its way, with cars crashing repeatedly. But your driver just keeps going, leaving carnage in his wake. Naturally, you are terrified - but your reactions are irrelevant.
Finally, the bus itself crashes, killing many. Miraculously, you and your loved ones climb out of the wreckage. A second bus is standing by, and you gratefully scramble aboard. The engine starts up, but then the bus lurches dangerously onto the road, going too fast. Only then do you see that this new bus has the same driver, and he has learned nothing. Welcome to the United States of America. And welcome to the annual State of the Union address.Every year, the nation looks up from the wreckage, only to see that the same unskilled and careless driver is still at the wheel, bombing along. Each January, he explains himself. You already know what he will say. His one admirable quality is that, over the years, he has always said exactly what to expect. A review of the Bush speeches has an "I told you so" quality, going back to the start. That raises the question, Why have you repeatedly been surprised?
It was, after all, in his 2002 State of the Union address that President Bush defined the purpose to which he has been dedicated ever since. "Evil" was his constant point of reference, and he claimed the mantle of one who would end it. America's enemies were an "axis of evil," while America's friend was God, who, Bush told us, was "near."
In such a cosmic moral struggle, normal standards of restraint did not apply. That you could not imagine yet the wreckage of law and decency - torture, wiretapping, concentration camps, treaty betrayals - that would follow from this course does not detract from your obligation to acknowledge that it was openly set by Bush's first statement of purpose. Your bus was being driven by St. George, the dragon slayer. And why should mere rules of the road apply to him?
In 2003, the State of the Union address was, in effect, a declaration of war against Saddam Hussein. Bush could not have been more direct in stating his intentions, asserting absolutely that Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were a present danger.
Bush promised that Secretary of State Colin Powell would immediately go before the United Nations to prove it. (To Bush's credit, the 2003 speech also unveiled the "Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief," his administration's one positive accomplishment.) When Bush drove the United States into full-blown Middle East war two months later, he was only following the plan he had already laid out.
In 2004, Afghanistan was a smoldering ruin, and Iraq was under the bus. Yet Bush declared victory right and left. "The boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school," he said. As for Iraq, we were only dealing with "a remnant of violent Saddam supporters." He was still saying that Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction.
In the 2006 State of the Union address, Bush repeated that "we will never surrender to evil," but now he was explicitly associating it with what he called "radical Islam." This careless labeling took the bus into the mine field of religious war.
What is most notable about the 2006 speech, however, is that New Orleans, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, barely appeared in it. That the United States of America has abandoned that great city and its people to this day - surely to rank as the Bush administration's most notable act of domestic policy - should have been no surprise to anyone who heard him then.
Last year's State of the Union address was historic. Because of the antiwar mandate of the November elections, and the cover offered him by the consensus around the Baker-Hamilton commission, Bush had a golden opportunity to change the disastrous war course he had set.
Instead, with the so-called surge, he gunned it.
"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq," he said, "but it's the fight we're in."
That's like the driver saying, "This is not the road I thought it was," as he leaps to safety just as the bus goes off the cliff. We are a nation in free fall. The final insult is that, one more time, the driver gets to lecture us.